the food whisperer

 

self-taught chef chris bauer is known for his imaginative european dishes with plenty of twists but he is just as at home cooking malaysian food. on a tour of his favourite wet market, he reveals a penchant for petai and tempoyak.

knobbly and pinkish, gnarly and covered in earth, orange stubs that resemble fat grubs – the array of ginger that spreads out across the stall is impressive. “that’s lengkuas, galangal...and this is kencur, which is used for cooking bebek betutu (indonesian crispy duck),” chris bauer clues me in as he breaks off a small piece to inhale its spicy aroma.

chris is the chef and co-owner of troika sky dining, one of kuala lumpur’s most respected gourmet haunts and his second culinary venture after the success that was frangipani in changkat bukit bintang. at his restaurants, chris masterminds dishes that are european by origins, contemporised by surprising pairings that push the culinary envelope. contrastingly, when he cooks for himself, chris keeps things simple, often dishing up local delights that he’s developed a palate for after 25 years in malaysia.

we are at his favourite market in chow kit, the city’s largest open-air wet market for nearly six decades now and until last year, a never-ending labyrinth of stalls parked under large, rainbow-hued umbrellas. as part of its on-going rm200 million facelift, some stalls have relocated under zinc roofs and the market is now segmented into pockets. chris is my guide as we navigate the dry goods and vegetable aisles, pointing out the pucuk paku (fiddle fern) and tempoyak (fermented durian) as among his favourites.

“i love these,” he says as we stop at a basket of buah keluak, typically cooked with chicken for a classic nyonya dish. crack open the shells and if the flesh is white, it’s gone bad and must be binned. we find strands of petai (stinky beans), also one of his must-haves, hanging like half curtains across a stall. “feel the space between each pod; the bigger the gaps, the older the beans are.” a cluster of pretty-in-pink ginger torch buds catches his eye. a key nyonya cooking ingredient, it’s also used in the making of assam laksa, the first malaysian dish that chris tried his hand at. “i had this cookbook by one mrs beh that i followed faithfully because let me tell you, her recipes are fail proof,” chris emphasises, recalling the time he was at this very market shopping for ingredients for said dish. “a lady told me i had bought too much lemongrass for assam laksa. i double checked the recipe and it was correct. the laksa turned out perfect. i wish i could go back to that day and tell the lady that she’s wrong – mrs beh is always right!”

i had this cookbook by one mrs beh that i followed faithfully because let me tell you, her recipes are fail proof

yet sticking to the conventional isn’t quite chris’ style, although he believes in following a recipe to a t on the first attempt as a means to grasp the basics before tweaking it on subsequent tries. “it’s important to understand how something is made, even if you then go and buy it from a supplier!” he says with a chuckle, naming tripe as one example as we step past the butcher’s, where the pre-cleaned offal look no different from dusty rags. “it’s a lot of work to get them clean. my guys did it once and said, never again! but at least they know how to do it.”

some things, though, must be done in-house and the menu at his restaurant, cantaloupe, showcases just how much – every plate is art and delivers surprises in every mouthful. however well you may think you know food, chris is determined to make you wonder, question and ultimately, embrace new experiences. “fine dining is about making memorable food. if you’re not serving dishes that people would drive across town to eat, you have failed.” a delectable case in point is their house-cured duck bacon, which combines the salty, savoury pleasure of regular bacon with the melt-in-the-mouth texture of the finest iberican ham. the traditional satay is turned on its skewers, with cubes of foie gras held together by fried spaghetti sticks and served with a generous dollop of chunky peanut sauce. it’s the kind of dishes that startle the taste buds as much as they excite the mind, imparting a gratification that you will remember for a long time.

of course, gorgeous plating plays a role in their enjoyment but does not distract nor disguise the integrity of the food itself – the first rule in chris’ book. “if a dish is called grilled chicken, you should be able to see the grill marks on the meat,” he explains before elaborating on another pet peeve. “i don’t like when a dish shows off how clever it is. molecular gastronomy, to me, is often a toy that’s wrongly employed when it should be a tool that can be put to good use.”

like spherification to turn sauces into liquid-filled balls, for example, a popular application of molecular science but the question chris asks is, does it enhance the food? used pragmatically, it can be a very good thing. “if you’re serving oysters as canapés, it makes sense to make lemon juice spheres so that as the tray is passed around the room, the juice is kept fresh in those little orbs until someone picks one up.”

it’s such thought process that chris embarks on whenever he conceptualises new menus for his restaurants, a procedure that’s surprisingly more paperwork than cooking. “when i was still running frangipani, i would be parked at the bar half the time, scribbling down recipes for special menus that we would test just one day before they were introduced to customers. cooking is always the last part.” his inspirations are culled from everywhere and often, the dishes are visually driven – the shape and size of a plate could spark off ideas – or an ingredient he just discovered and is obsessed with.

food talks to me, i’m a food whisperer

preceding all that, however, is an intimate and comprehensive knowledge of the food itself. yet, chris has never as much as stepped inside a culinary institution. instead, his instincts were honed at home since he was a young lad of 14 and ventured into the kitchen out of necessity. “my mother wasn’t a very good cook,” he rues. “she could do a few dishes well but whatever else i wanted to eat, i had to make it myself.” he started with a black forest cake, which is surely an ambitious choice for a first timer? “here’s a secret: it’s a cake that’s easy to salvage if you mess up, so it’s ideal for beginners to practise with.”

from necessity to passion and in the last two decades, a restaurateur with five top-rated food and beverage outlets to his name – how did this self-taught chef come so far? “food talks to me, i’m a food whisperer,” he says with a smile. “sometimes, it says ‘a little bit more’, other time it tells me to ‘put more acidity’. and sometimes, it says ‘you screwed up!’”

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

get a taste of terengganu peranakan cuisine

tpf laksa merah

 

we’re all familiar with the peranakans, a community of chinese – and to a smaller degree, indians too – who have assimilated with malay customs since the early days of malaya. while maintaining their respective heritage, they have fused many elements of malay food, arts and fashion with their own to create a fascinating cultural hodgepodge.

the peranakans are most strongly associated with melaka, penang and singapore, which were known as the straits settlements during colonial days. there, the population is still fairly large and they have kept their culture intact in many ways. but did you know that terengganu also has a thriving peranakan community? although the numbers are much smaller, the mek and awang – as the women and men are known, respectively – of the malaysian east coast are no less colourful in their traditions.

they share a love for spices with their counterparts from the other states, but the cuisine of the terengganu peranakans yields a number of surprises for those who are accustomed to nyonya dishes such as ayam pongteh, inche kabin, kari kapitan and kerabu bee hoon.

although the numbers are much smaller, the mek and awang – as the women and men are known, respectively – of the malaysian east coast are no less colourful in their traditions

in terengganu, they use a lot of fish and coconuts in their cooking, two ingredients that are in abundance in their coastal state. where the other peranakan fare tends to veer toward the spicy and zesty, terengganu’s offerings are more savoury and creamy. santan is usedly widely as is local produce such as budu (fermented fish sauce) and gula nisan (coconut sugar) in place of gula melaka.

the names of dishes often indicate their cross-cultural influences, a mix of hokkien or chinese and malay. don’t be surprised to see words like ‘jidan’ (egg), ‘har’ (prawn) or ‘kay’ (chicken) paired with malay cooking terms like ‘masak putih’ or ‘kerutub’.

hankering for a taste? these are some of the most traditional terengganu peranakan dishes to try for an understanding into their unique culture.

tpf laksa putih

laksa terengganu this rice noodles dish is popular across malaysia, with practically every state serving up its own distinctive version. in terengganu, it is eaten with a thick and creamy soup made from ikan selayang, santan and a variety of spices. this is called the kuah putih or white gravy, to which sambal and grated belacan are added for a kick of spice and pungency. there is also a kuah merah variant, which contains the addition of a red chilli paste. the noodles are then garnished with finely julienned or chopped raw bean sprouts, long beans, ginger torch flower and ulam (raw herbs).

tpf pulut lepa grilled
tpf pulut lepa

pulut lepa it looks no different from pulut panggang, a malay delicacy of glutinous rice rolls wrapped in banana leaves and then grilled. cut into the pulut lepa and you’ll realise that the filling is not the usual spicy dried prawns and shredded coconut mix, but is more of a fish floss. ikan selayang is first boiled in santan, then shredded and flavoured with shallots and spices like halba (fenugreek). the latter features in a number of terengganu dishes, including the must-have nasi dagang.

ikan masak putih similar to the kuah putih that dresses laksa terengganu, masak putih is a style of cooking that employs the use of shallots, garlic, ginger and halba pounded into a paste and then cooked with coconut milk. red chilli paste is then added for flavour and colour, and served with thick cuts of fish for an appetising dish to pair with steamed rice.

tpf rojak betik spread
tpf rojak betik

rojak betik zesty and refreshing, this salad combines slivers of green papayas with chunks of fresh pineapples and cucumber. a spicy, sourish fish-based soup is then poured over and as a finishing touch, pieces of crispy fried keropok ikan are piled on top. the original way to eat this is to use the fish crackers to scoop up the other ingredients so you get a bit of everything in each bite.

kay hong meaning braised chicken in hokkien, the meat is first marinated in tao ceo (fermented bean paste) and yah theng (gula nisan). the meat caramelises to a dark finish, and results in a savoury and salty casserole with a touch of sweetness. hard-boiled eggs are sometimes added.

tpf lekor rebus
tpf roti paun

kape hu sa/lekor rebus keropok lekor is synonymous with terengganu, fish crackers made from boiled ikan parang paste that are widely available at street food stalls everywhere and eaten deep-fried in the form of thick wedges or crunchy thins. the terengganu peranakan way skips the frying, serving the sliced boiled snack with sambal belacan.

roti paun while not strictly a peranakan delicacy, these petite soft buns are unique to terengganu and come plain – but baked with a layer of margarine at the base, which gives the bread a golden, syrupy finish – as well as with a variety of fillings. among them is the fish floss similar to that used for pulut lepa.

kay bacok/ayam pachok these chicken skewers pack generous chunks of juicy meat onto each stick, which are grilled and then wrapped in banana leaves. the chicken is coated in a mix of spices, shallots, dried chilli paste, gula nisan, santan and kerisik (toasted grated coconut) that create a good balance of savoury, spicy and sweet.

tpf desserts
tpf kay bacok
tpf asam gupal

asam gupal the flavours and ingredients are familiar, but are combined in a way that’s not found in the usual malaysian kuih-muih spread. steamed sago, filled with mung beans paste, are rolled into balls and served in a santan soup spiced with ginger, shallots and halba. the sago gives a firm bite, the mung beans are slightly saltish, while the soup is creamy and savoury.

kuih cawan similar to ko swee, these are saucer-shaped steamed rice flour cakes that come in a variety of bright colours. each cake is dotted with a tiny scoop of peanuts that have been boiled, mashed and sweetened.

ban teng made up of three layers – yellow on the top and bottom, with a strip of green (pandan-flavoured) in the middle – this steamed egg custard cake has a soft, spongey texture.


when in kuala terengganu, head to these restaurants to sample authentic terengganu peranakan dishes:

madam bee’s kitchen 177 jalan kampung cina tel +6012 988 7495 opens 9.30am-5pm, thursday-tuesday; closed on wednesdays

ah hong cafe 76-d wisma ali long, jalan cherong lanjut tel +6012 937 3662 opens 3pm-11pm facebook

a taste for travel

wanderlust interiors
wanderlust table
wanderlust plants

the homey vibe has given way to clean, contemporary chic. the plush sofas are gone and in their place, rattan chairs nostalgic of yesteryear kopitiams. most noticeably, the bookshelves that were lined with volumes of lonely planet and other travel guides are no more. indeed, departure lounge has taken a well, departure from its original incarnation and transformed into a completely new dining spot.

what they have kept is the travel theme, reflected in the new name – wanderlust restaurant & espresso bar – and marked by white and blue paper planes that form part of the table decor. the same colour palette dresses up the minimalist space, highlighted by a ‘chandelier’ of clear glass bottles.

the food is not unlike the makings of a good getaway: explorative, innovative and peppered with interesting discoveries. the day menu (opening till 5pm) lists updated breakfast favourites alongside familiar dishes renewed with creative pairings.

wanderlust spinach salad
wanderlust lollipops

the baked eggs, for example, features grilled apples; the momofuku-inspired gua bao sandwiches thick slabs of fried chicken thighs; chicharron is made halal by using chicken skin in place of the usual pork; flaming wings are served with spiced watermelon. the wanderlust benedict jazzes up the usual poached-eggs-on-brioche by drizzling it over with a curry hollandaise and on the side, paratha pieces. even the eggs have been given a twist: first poached, then deep fried so what you get is a runny yolk encased in wobbly whites and coated in a crispy batter.

this egg-cellent incarnation is also the star of the baby spinach salad with apples, raisins, beets and goji dressed in an orange vinaigrette. the mix appears random, and the dressing is so subtle that when it arrives at the table, you’d think they forgot the vinaigrette. but dig in and the pairings make sense, bringing everything together in a balance of delicate flavours.

on the other hand, the chicken and prawn lollipops with a tom yum dip packs on the flavour in the latter. as the dish makes its way to you, its tangy aroma already wakes up the appetite. the lollipops, wrapped around sticks of lemongrass and panfried, are generously studded with chopped onions that give the minced paste a fragrant sweetness and a lovely crunch.

wanderlust sago

desserts are limited to just three options: the punny beeramisu (tiramisu with beer), a comforting matcha soy pudding and a westernised take on sago gula melaka, served in a cocktail glass topped with crushed hazelnut brittle, a shot of ristretto and a tiny pitcher of hot cream. the pearls are cooked just right but the brittle renders the sago so sweet that even the sharpness of the ristretto doesn’t give it the right balance.

all in all, wanderlust lives up to its name, delivering many treats to adventurous palates.

 

10 jalan solaris 4, solaris mont kiara tel +603 6211 9688 opens 11am-11pm, mon-fri; 9am-11pm, sat-sun facebook


 

handmade gems in coconut milk

pak su cendol closeup
pak su overview

i made my way to a food truck that’s parked opposite a mosque, underneath tarpaulin sheets tied between two tall trees. i love this aspect of our local food scene: casual eateries that serve simple, comforting meals amidst an al fresco environment surrounded by lush greens. call me sentimental but in my books, food that’s served under the shade of leafy trees always tastes better.

a bunting tied to one of the trees displays the truck’s menu: cendol, ais batu campur, rojak, mee rebus and mee kari. such food trucks are common across malaysia and most of the offerings are pretty standard fare. but ferhad had told me that this proprietor makes his own cendol by hand, which is a rarity and that was what i was keen to check out.

i started with a bowl of cendol and a plate of rojak mamak or pasembur. i had arrived on a rainy afternoon so there was no crowd and it was just a matter of minutes before my order was laid out on the long table covered with plastic tablecloth. i dug into the cendol first and was glad to note that they didn’t give me a mountain of shaved ice as some stalls do but a good amount that’s balanced by coconut milk. you have the option of adding red beans (they use kidney beans) or glutinous rice.

the cendol itself, jade green and worm-like, were fairly thick and of uneven forms as i expected to see, due to their handmade nature. they imparted a subtle pandan fragrance and flavour, which told of their authenticity, and were slippery soft yet firm to the bite. the gula melaka, another important component that can make or break a cendol, was another plus point – aromatic and not overly sweet.

pak su abc
pak su mee

altogether, it was a refreshing and highly satisfying bowl of dessert that paired really well with the rojak. slivers of finely-julienned jicama and cucumber sat in a pool of chunky peanut sauce with bite-sized pieces of fritters, a hard-boiled egg and blanched bean sprouts. i would have loved more vegetables in the mix, but it’s a small shortcoming that was easily made up for by the rest of the dish. the sauce had a spicy kick to it that gave just enough heat without overpowering the rest of it. the fritters were another delight, full of flavour and most importantly, tasted fresh and not greasy.

it prompted me to try more of their food so i ordered the ais batu campur (abc) and mee rebus. the abc, while striking to look at with its vibrant pink jelly pearls and green jelly, was too sweet for my liking. the latter, on the other hand, was an appetising plate of yellow noodles in a thick, creamy sauce that’s cooked from fresh prawns, sweet potatoes, curry leaves and a blend of spices including cumin, star anise, fennel and cloves. most mee rebus tends to lean towards either the sweet or the spiced side but this was a good balance of both. the sauce had a good depth of well-rounded flavours that unfolded in the mouth.

there’s a richness and freshness to the dishes, and when i spoke to owner mohamad hanefah bin abdul latif, his food mantras say it all: “i cook as i would want to eat” and “always cook with love”. hanefah, whom friends and customers fondly call pak su – su being short for bongsu, which means the youngest in the family and he is – went on to tell me the importance of sustainability in this business. “you must do things properly, no chin chai!” that means not skimping on any ingredients or proven methods, even if it takes longer or delivers a lower yield. the green of the cendol, for example, must come from natural pandan essence and not food colouring or flavouring. “i once had this customer, an elderly gentleman, who came to try my food and told me that the flavours are what he remembers from similar dishes he ate years ago,” said pak su. “he asked me to never change them.”

his food mantras say it all: ‘i cook as i would want to eat’ and ‘always cook with love’

pak su also personal reasons for staying faithful to the recipes, which he learnt from his late father who used to run a cendol stall near the old railway station in their hometown of batu gajah, perak. after spm, pak su spent a year and a half helping his father manage the stall and learning about the intricacies of cendol-making. it’s a long time to spend on picking up one skill, i remarked. pak su was quick to point out that there are many details to it and everything takes time.

the cendol is made by mixing rice flour, water and pandan essence and then pushing it through a special sieve. pak su and his brother mohamad abdul majid, who runs the truck with him, make the cendol themselves at home once every three to four days or whenever it runs out, using about 5kg of flour each time. the syrup that’s served with the cendol is a mixture of brown and white sugar scented with pandan leaves, an alternative they had to resort to as pure gula melaka has become scarce. the sugar mix needs to be cooked for up to five hours to achieve the desired consistency and taste.

pak su group shot
pak su tarpaulin

even though pak su has been making and selling cendol from his truck for 14 years now, he does not consider himself an expert and definitely not as good as his late father. “i’m still perfecting my skills as i go along,” he says modestly, adding that being humble is actually an important ingredient in making cendol. “whenever someone praises my food, i would just nod and smile. if i as much as boast, something is bound to go wrong the next time i make cendol!”

for the noodle dishes, pak su turned to his sisters for tutelage and as with the cendol, he continuously aims to perfect the recipes. “i still make mistakes,” he admitted, citing that time when he didn’t realise that the cumin he had always relied on had dropped in quality. that affected the flavour of the sauces and he received complaints from customers as well as his sisters. “they would scold me if something is not up to standard, and tell me not to sell it to my customers!” pak su also makes it a point to never serve leftovers; anything that’s unsold at the end of each business day is thrown or given away. when you eat at his stall, you can be assured that everything is freshly made that very morning.

pak su’s dedication to serving honest, good food and attention to details spills over to the way he runs his stall. i had observed as his brother abdul majid prepared the rojak. the ingredients were kept in a simple larder with open shelves that’s ubiquitous at food stalls but this one had a soft purple curtain covering it as a hygiene measure. he would lift the curtain to take out the ingredients as needed and as soon as an order was done, the curtain went back down. i looked around the truck and the seating area, and was pleased to note that everything was clean and neat, which is something we don’t see often enough at local food stalls. “of course cleanliness is important,” pak su confirmed. “who would want to eat at a stall that’s not clean? not me!”

the brothers are assisted by one staff who has been with them for more than 10 years now and the three share an easy camaraderie. for the first time visitor, it may be hard to tell who’s the boss and who’s the worker! pak su’s two teenage children help out during their school holidays and get paid proper wages. “last year, my elder son managed to save up a good amount from working for me and with that money, he paid for one sacrificial goat during hari raya,” the proud father revealed.

pak su’s dedication to serving honest, good food and attention to details spills over to the way he runs his stall

besides selling at their regular spot, pak su also does catering for private functions and corporate events, and is savvy enough to ensure that their uniform polo t-shirts are embroidered with the stall’s name and contact details on the back. pak su’s business acumen and exposure come from his previous jobs; he has worked at a fine dining restaurant of a five-star hotel in singapore and for four years, he was a steward on a private yacht. those were what he calls his ‘golden years’ as he had the opportunity to travel to more than 15 countries for free while earning a living.

it was also during that time that he met his good friend param jothy krishnan, now the captain of a private yacht, who encouraged him to establish this business and lent him the money for his start-up. param never once asked him to pay back the money but it was always pak su’s aim to do so. last year, he finally managed to save enough to repay his friend and supporter.

it would seem that everything is going pak su’s way, so is there anything else he would like to see through? “i’d encourage my children to travel,” he said. “everyone needs to see the world.” and if you’re a cendol fan, you need to travel to his neighbourhood and try his handmade dessert and spicy noodle dishes.

> pak su cendol is usually parked in front of the mosque along jalan liter u19/d, section u19, sungai buloh opens 10am-4.30pm daily

 

this article first appeared in crave and the malay mail online on 7 sep 2014

 

feeding the arts and soul

kons counter
kons menu

for four years, spa lovers and health enthusiasts found a sanctuary in nada lama spa & jamu bar, set among the leafy settings of bukit lanjan not far from damansara perdana. in a wooden house built in traditional malay architectural style, visitors enjoyed relaxing massages, a selection of health-boosting jamu (tonics brewed from spices and herbs) and a small menu of indonesian delights at their in-house cafe, warung.

when nada closed down about two years ago due to concerns over safety after landslides in the area, regulars thought they’d enjoyed the last of it but luckily for them, nada owner pamela noer has now teamed up with a group of collaborators to set up konscious cafe. occupying a corner space that’s actually part of clean pro laundry next door, the cafe is decked out in antique wooden furniture relocated from nada and sports that familiar homey, rustic vibe. the walls are painted stark black and soft greys, with the menu handwritten across the former while small artistic touches lend the warm interiors some bright touches.

besides jamu – though now whittled down to just the turmeric variant, which was their most popular – and some of warung’s bestsellers, konscious’s menu is guided by a belief in the simplicity of cooking and the use of all-natural ingredients. “traditionally, our food was all organic,” says pamela, “i want to bring that back at the cafe; food that is soulful, that fills and also fulfills.”

about 95 percent of the food served at konscious is organic; everything else is all natural and all fresh ingredients are first soaked in filter water from a kangen purifier, the only brand endorsed by the japanese ministry of health and which for 40 years, was used at hospitals in japan.

kons soba

konscious makes their own gluten-free pastas while scones and buns are supplied by white brick oven, a micro-bakery in sungai buloh that’s known for their artisanal breads. they also get some loaves from a baker who was formerly from craft baker, a company that practised stringent quality control in their organic produce. for their coffee drinks, konscious opted for incafe, a new zealand-based roaster that uses peruvian and indonesian beans and supports fair trade. several brands of organic teas are also available.

if that’s enough to set your health-loving heart aflutter, there’s more. “we prioritise recipes that do not require salt, often replacing it with herbs, lemon and lime. when necessary, only himalayan pink salt is used while apples and bananas are used in place of sugar,” pamela reveals. their dishes also incorporate superfoods such as chia seeds, maca powder and raw shelled hemp seeds – which can also be added to any of the dishes for rm3 a serving.

the cafe’s eco conscience doesn’t stop at their food but extends to what they are served on. certain dishes are plated on dinnerware by fallaleaf, a homegrown brand of disposable and degradable plates and bowls made of recycled nipah leaf. order a cold drink and you can slurp it up using straws fashioned from natural bamboo, sourced from sabah.

i want to bring that back at the cafe; food that is soulful, that fills and also fulfills

using the best ingredients and purest materials is, however, only halfway to the kind of food that konscious aims to deliver; the other important half of the equation is flavour. “we make sure our dishes are palatable so that even those who are not usually inclined towards healthy food would be willing to try and not feel like they’re eating rabbit feed!” while former nada regulars make up about 50 per cent of their current clientele and are therefore familiar with such cuisine, others are often surprised at how they managed to pack so much taste into every dish. 

global grub konscious’ menu runs the gamut from south east asian light bites to wholesome japanese fare, with some middle eastern flavours thrown in. those who have dined at warung would remember the vegan spring roll, a refreshing vietnamese-style appetiser that contains tofu and their house-made tofu mayonnaise, and the popular indonesian salad gado-gado.

kons burmes
kons banana smoo
kons latte
kons org teas

an interesting salad to try is the burmese fermented green tea version, a bowl of raw greens, nuts and cherry tomatoes topped with a scoop of the spicy paste, made of pounded green tea leaves that have been fermented using kefir, a natural probiotics that they cultured in-house and that is also served as a drink. naturally carbonated from the fermentation process, konscious’ version tastes a little like a yeasty coke.

another recommended meat-free delight is the herb and pistachio falafel burger, a generous portion of a nutty patty sandwiched in a crusty sourdough and layered with vegetables and a pink hummus that’s made of beetroot and chickpeas. 

while konscious offers a good selection of greens, meat and seafood are also on the table. “we’re not trying to tell people that they should only eat certain food, we just want to share what it means to eat well,” pamela explains, pointing out that diners also have the option of adding meat to the vegetarian eats.

there’s kha nom jeen, a thai specialty of rice noodles and raw vegetables tossed in a thick and minced fish sauce that delivers a nice kick of heat. for meat lovers, their chargrilled chicken is a must-try, served several different ways including in a vietnamese banh mi-style spelt baguette sandwich with a slap of chicken liver pate and with gluten-free miso soba, japanese buckwheat noodles in soup garnished with carrots, daikon, burdock and tofu. hearty and comforting, it’s already a hit with konscious’ customers and has been known to please even finicky young diners.

we just want to share what it means to eat well

creative collaborations the diversity of konscious’ offerings reflect the people who are running the cafe together with pamela, a motley bunch of creative talents that include animators, illustrators, designers, filmmakers, cinematographers, visual artists, photographers, a climbing wall builder, copywriter and public relations practitioner, with some of them wearing several hats at the same time. their backgrounds are just as varied: malaysians, japanese, a russian, maldivian and a couple of british nationals. some of them are based locally while others shuttle around, but everyone comes together as often as possible and contribute in different ways.

japanese-american jayce izumi, who is also a model and actor, conceptualised the menu together with pamela and heads the kitchen. the chargrilled chicken is among his specialties, packed full of flavour thanks to a secret marinate, and it also features in what he promises to be the best rice burge: an overflowing bed of the umami-rich chicken, lettuce and alfalfa snuggle between crisped rice patties and lays on a bamboo leaf that you can use to hold the burger, with a side of house-made beetroot pickled ginger.

kons banh mi
kons khao jam

former college mates and jills of many trades liyana azo and nadiah almahdaly painted a striking visual – originally the cafe’s logo – above the menu of a figure reclining against a gigantic lightbulb with gnarly roots and the words ‘prana food’. aswadi noor, who constructs climbing walls for camp5, took charge of utility details like the piping and lights. given the brief to do something artistic but not chaotic, he devised lamp shades out of nada’s old foot soak bowls and matched them with copper piping for an antique look that’s in line with the rest of the decor.

other members of the collective are mohamed sathom, rusyam sopian, maxim emelynov, kai yokoyama, christopher tsuji, june tan, thomas buttery and tom price. “we first formed an animation and production company called 100 monkeys,” explains pamela, who is also a filmmaker specialising in travel documentaries. “as independent artists, we struggle to get funding for our projects while having a free hand to do what we want. that was why we decided to set up konscious cafe on a cooperative basis.”

the plan is to grow a chain of konscious cafes, with each person in the group owning one outlet in their respective corners of the globe. from this first outlet, 50% of the profit earned goes into maintaining it while the other 50% will be used to finance the second outlet, and it goes on and on. employees of the cafe will also eventually have the opportunity to call a konscious cafe their own.

in short, konscious is a channel to raise the financial backing that each of them needs to realise their individual vision and also serves as a platform to support the arts and the artistic, like themselves. “we conceptualised konscious to be a carefree place where people feel comfortable, get to meet like-minded folks and exchange ideas.”

kons ceiling

artists for artists the cafe’s decor supports that: an interior grey wall and the side exterior of the cafe both double up as canvases for displaying art or for it to be painted on, and will be refreshed every few months. to begin with, bristol artist kyle smart and jordanian sushii firash have been invited to showcase their works.

meanwhile, a large white circle on a smaller wall inside the cafe is meant for film projection, with screenings focusing on travel documentaries, awareness projects and smaller productions that are usually not shown at the cinemas.

while those projects are waiting to take off, konscious continues to refine their menu and will be working with a nutritionist to see how they can further amp up the healthy elements in their dishes. undoubtedly, the cafe is living up to their mantra of being ‘hippie, healthy, happy’ so the only other question that’s hanging in the air is their logo and signboard (the facade is bare at the moment except for the word incafe painted on a column, just look for clean pro laundry). “this is what happens when you have so many creative heads together,” pamela says with a laugh. “everyone has a different idea of what it should be!”

KONS FALAFEL burger
kons apple pie
kons juices

konscious cafe 10 jalan pju8/3a, damansara perdana, selangor tel +603 7710 0129 opens 8am-10pm daily;

UPDATE > konscious cafe has closed down at damansara perdana and will re-open at a different location, by oct 2015, where they will also have their own farm, boutique accommodation and a co-working space. follow us on facebook to receive updates and our upcoming review of the new konscious cafe.


 

this article first appeared in malay mail online and crave on 7 dec 2014

 

 

sarnies and such

having nourished us with their squeezed-upon-order fruit juices and wheatgrass shots for several years now, boost juice malaysia now wants to keep you on the healthy track with their new food concept, london sandwich co (lsc). much like the very popular pret a manger from london - that perhaps explains their name - lsc offers ready-to-go sandwiches, salads, yogurt cups, muesli bars and fresh fruits for a quick and easy complete meal for city folks who need to be on the move. salad pots will be added to the range soon.

there's a good variety of sandwiches, categorised by bread type: wholemeal, multigrain baguettes, multigrain bread, toasties and also children's choices. choice of fillings range from the familiar and loved - tuna mayo, smoked salmon, bblt (with beef bacon), cheese & tomato - to the more gourmet like prawn cocktail, the ploughmans (australian mature cheddar cheese with english branston pickle) and the londoner (like the previous, but with the addition of turkey ham). for vegetarians, the naked avocado should please as will the cheddar salad on baguette.

there's also a selection of pastries, including danish and brownies that are freshly baked on premise. wash it all down with espresso-based coffees. occasionally, they also stock fresh juices from boost.

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...promise of real honest food

we taste-tested the chicken avocado in artisanal multigrain, a hearty serving of fluffy bread holding together well-seasoned pulled roast chicken breast dressed in an english mustard mayonnaise and topped with tomatoes, basil, romaine and lollarossa lettuce.

all of their selections (except baked goods) are displayed in the chiller so you can simply pick, pay and go. sandwiches are wrapped in clear plastic that let you see exactly what you're getting, salads come in cardboard boxes while the toasties are sealed in brown paper bags - they'll reheat them for you. the packaging is simple and projects a clean, fresh image that's matches their promise of 'real honest food'.

concourse c-68, klcc opens 7.30am-10pm, mon-fri; 10am-10pm, sat-sun & public holidays facebook 

'big face' and big on flavours

tai kau meen, ban chian kuih, ming jiang kueh – call it what you will and in any dialect you choose, this pancake is one of the most enjoyable among traditional chinese sweets. making it is easy enough, or at least it looks so: pour batter onto large flat frying pan,  sprinkle filling over, wait for the bottom to brown then remove from pan, fold the other half over, slice and serve. the most basic and traditional filling is ground peanuts mixed with sugar, to which one can also opt to add red beans or sweet creamed corn, or both.

at granny’s pancake, a popular stall located within the square that is the well-patronised ghim moh food centre in singapore, things are done a little differently. there are four fixed variants - peanuts, red beans, shredded coconuts and peanut butter - and depending on how many orders are being placed by the customers ahead of you, you could be in for quite a wait. but it’s well worth it, as what you’ll get is always pan-fresh and piping hot. 

waiting is, in fact, a joy if you ask us as it’s an opportunity to watch the proprietors at work. there are usually just two people running the stall: one focuses on the making while the other takes and packs the constant stream of orders. it’s a well-oiled machine, with every step deftly and swiftly executed, and all within a quaint space – place one more person there and it will be an uncomfortable squeeze.

what you’ll get is always pan-fresh and piping hot

there’s enough room for just two pans over medium fire at any one time and each pan makes a pancake that can be cut into eight equal pieces. it’s not unusual for customers to snap up an entire cake at one go, hence the wait.

you can see that the proprietors are on the edge as orders piles up. the one manning the pans will lift the cakes up every now and then to check, drumming his fingers to muster patience. but it’s not a process that can be rushed, even if the queue never lets up until the very last drop of batter has been turned into kuih.

as soon as he deems that the browning has reached the required level, he chisels the pancake out  without adding the filling. the 'empty' pancake is lifted to the filling station and only then is it filled in piles of either peanuts that have been crushed into fine morsels and then mixed with sugar; shredded fresh coconuts cooked in a mutant orange sugar; thick, smooth peanut butter; red beans that have been mashed into a paste and prepared in the same round shape and size as the pancake – the plastic sheet protecting it is removed when needed, and the paste is then slapped onto the cake.

bite into the pancakes and you’ll understand where granny's stands out: the edges of the crust are crispy while the cake is pillow-soft and spongey without being dense, and every slice overflows with filling. each of the four filling is enjoyable for its own reasons: the peanuts and red beans are aromatic, pure in flavour and have just the right amount of sugar to give it a lovely sweetness without being cloying. the peanut butter is thick and rich without sticking to your teeth and the coconut, which gets our top vote, is utterly delightful. the coconut’s natural flavour shines through and maintains a lovely crunch that gives textural contrast and balance to the cake.

even after being left for a few hours and once, overnight in the refrigerator before reheated for breakfast  the pancakes were still as enjoyable, although the peanuts had gone a tad soggy.

the coconut’s natural flavour shines through and maintains a lovely crunch that gives textural contrast and balance to the cake

granny’s secret, it seems, is in the way the batter is prepared. sugar is added into the batter before and not while it is cooking in the pan, as is usually the case, and the mixture is strained to ensure smoothness. the fillings are only added after the cake leaves the pan so they stay crunchy or moist longer. most crucially, they are all made from scratch, even the peanut butter. if you stay on after business hours, you can actually watch them prepare the fillings for the next day when, no doubt, another long line of eager customers will wait as patiently as possible to get their hands onto these beautiful ‘big face cakes’ (that’s what tai kau meen means in cantonese).

 

granny’s pancake #01-24 ghim moh market and food centre, 20 ghim moh road, singapore opens mornings only, from around 7am-noon daily

 

fluffy and fantastic

a son’s love for his mother’s cooking led him to setting up an eatery that is now three outlets-strong and where those in the know flock to for her specialty appam.

like a pretty doily about the size and shape of a small bowl punctuated by tiny craters, the appam is thin and crispy around the edges while its centre is thick yet soft like a chinese honeycomb cake. ever since i chanced upon this south indian ‘pancake’ at a food court that sits next to a manmade lake located a short drive from a pewter factory, it has become one of my favourite day starters. at this particular food stall, owned and run by a indian muslim family, the appam is made upon order and served with fresh coconut milk. the latter, creamy and slightly salty, enhances the aroma and mild sweetness of the former so you get a well balanced combination of textures and flavours in every mouthful.

“that’s my mother’s specialty,” owner mohammed khurshid told me with a smile. “even though we have three outlets now, she only helps out at this original stall and so the appam is only available here.” in fact, all of the dishes that are on the menu are his mother, mariam binti wan noor’s, recipes and the kind of food that khurshid grew up eating. when he thought of opening an eatery, naturally mum’s cooking came to mind. the location was an easy choice too – a stone’s throw away from their family home, so it’s easy for mariam to get to each morning. she’s usually there by 4.30am in her vibrant saree, cooking and prepping for the breakfast crowd.

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the appam is made upon order and served with fresh coconut milk

 there are typically two groups of customers who flock here each morning: the first batch arrives as early as 6am, after performing their morning prayers at the nearby mosque. the second is more varied and scattered throughout their opening hours (6am-12 noon) and include regulars from the surrounding housing areas, their neighbours as well as housewives after their daily rounds at the open-air street market around the corner, where stalls sell fresh produce and cooked food under shady trees.

besides appam, their stall is also popular for their namesake chapatti as well as thosai, idli, puri, vadai and sugee balls, and that’s just for the morning session; the stall re-opens in the evening (6pm-12 midnight) to offer more hearty fare like nasi briyani. the appam, however, is served for breakfast only and on busy days, they could run out by 10.30am or so. “many of our customers do come specifically for the appam,” khurshid revealed, adding that there are actually many variants of it, naming the famous nalla’s appa kadai in india as a good example of the limitless ingredients and combinations one can add to an appam. nalla’s, which has multiple branches across and outside of india, was where khurshid got his appam fix when he was away from home and studying in kodaikanal.

at his stall, he decided to offer just three styles of appam: biasa, telur and manis. what some customers don’t realise is that there are a number of options to those three variants. the appam manis, for example, can be made with either white or brown sugar. the appam telur can be made by either mixing an egg into the batter before frying (the resulting appam is extra fluffy and aromatic), or added later so that you essentially get an appam biasa cradling an over easy, its golden yolk still runny.

i asked mariam where she learnt to make this tamil nadu delicacy. “i’ve been making appam since i was a little girl, it’s something we always ate at home,” she answered while showing me how it’s done. the thick, milky batter – which contains coconut milk, rice flour, a bit of sugar, a pinch of salt and bicarbonate soda – is ladled onto a hot appachatti, small woks designed specifically for frying appam. she picked up the handles and carefully gave the little wok a twirl to ensure that the batter coated the entire surface. the wok is then covered and let to sit over a low fire for several minutes. the appam is done when the edges have browned slightly and the bubbles on the surface have reduced to indentations.

when it comes to the coconut milk, mariam is adamant that it must be fresh and squeezed by hand

eating it dipped in coconut milk is how mariam has always enjoyed it, but if you prefer a savoury twist to your appam, just ask for any of the curries (she cooks some 15 varieties or more daily) or try it with the coconut chutney that’s typically eaten with idli.  the easygoing mother and son are happy to meet customers’ requests. “tak ada hal (it’s not a problem),” as mariam is fond of saying. they are generous about it too; whenever i do a takeaway from their stall, i always end up with more than enough coconut milk, curries or chutneys for my appam.

when it comes to the coconut milk, mariam is adamant that it must be fresh and squeezed by hand. “itu paket punya santan, tak boleh pakai punya (packet coconut milk just does not cut it),” she insisted. freshness is, in fact, an important focus at their stall; besides making most dishes from scratch, cooking everything fresh daily and on premise, khurshid pointed out that their food contains no msg and that “it is also our aim to cater to diabetics and those who are watching their cholesterol level. we noticed that many of our customers tend to be in the over-40 age group and so are more health conscious and selective of what they eat.”

if you’re looking for something light and that’s not too sweet or oily, the appam will make an ideal meal. i enjoy it simply because it’s delicious and comforting as it reminds me of my childhood, when the appam was more easily available and done properly, not reduced to the paper-thin versions that are common at the pasar malam these days. i would be happy to eat mariam’s appam for every meal but am just as contented to start my days with it.

 

*want to breakfast on these pretty ‘doilies’? email me your secret eat at thisbunnyhops@gmail.com and i'll let you in on where to find this southern indian delight

this article first appeared in crave and the malay mail online on 13 july 2014

 

 

 

 

 

life of pie

a dome of freshly whipped cream conceals a generous layer of durians, drizzled with sticky toffee, that sits on a base of baked digestive biscuits. cut through the cream and that unmistakable aroma assails the nostrils and the immediate surrounds. for fans of the king of fruits, it’s often love at first bite upon sinking their teeth into the duffee pie at the humble pie cafe, which opened on mother’s day weekend this past may. humble bills itself as an artisanal dessert cafe where the namesake pastry takes centre stage, complemented by illy coffees, tea concoctions and a growing menu of hot food.

unsurprisingly, the duffee is gaining firm popularity among durian fans, who get to satiate their cravings while enjoying a new way to indulge in the thorny delight. if you tend to run a mile from the pungent fruit, however, you can try humble’s other signature and originator of the duffee: the banoffee pie, with bananas in place of durians and presented the same way. the sweetness of the bananas and toffee is balanced out by the buttery, crumbly base while a dusting of ground illy coffee powder over the non-sweet cream gives the pie just a hint of bitterness.

what you get is honest-to-goodness comforting in every mouthful

what you get is honest-to-goodness comforting in every mouthful or perhaps like their name, humble is the more appropriate word for it. “our pies are not fancy, decorative or pretentious. in fact, some people have told us they are not very good looking!” says co-owner eugene ng, a former magazine editor who left a 18-year career in the publishing industry to realise his culinary dream. while writing and editing were his professional forte, eugene had always harboured a passion for cooking. “i’ve always been quite adventurous in the kitchen. i didn’t care if the dish failed; the adventure is part of the process.”

the banoffee was one of his most successful recipes, which he arrived at after testing and combining several different ones until every component was exactly how he wanted it. “i tasted my first banoffee pie when i was studying in the uk, it was my favourite comfort food,” he recalls. “when i came back to malaysia, i couldn’t find a good one so i decided to make my own.”

friends who tried his pie gave their thumbs up and encouraged him to turn into a business. he began taking orders while baking from home, about three years ago, but it was an informal set up that relied solely on word of mouth. when humble began taking shape, naturally the menu was built around the banoffee. “the pies as they are served at humble today are how i’ve always made them. i wanted to serve them as they are, hence our name.”

eugene runs the kitchen and operations at humble while his business partner, ex-banker angela tan, manages the front of house and the finances. the two met through mutual friends and poker games five years ago but it was only in the middle of last year that the idea of going into business together came up. angela had quit her job and was at a crossroads, while eugene had grown weary of working in magazines and was looking for a new career path.

the two teamed up with a silent partner and the humble pie co was born. neither angela nor eugene had any prior experience in running a food outlet so every step was a learning curve – and still is – but that didn’t stop them from taking a hands-on approach into every aspect of the start up, including sourcing for the furnishings. one of angela’s ideas was to use kitchen equipment as decor items and a trip to a kitchen supply store provided the answer. they found gigantic whisks (it’s not clear who actually uses them!) which they fashioned into lamps that now hang above the counter; oversized ‘tea strainers’ on chains – actually, two colanders sealed at the edges – light up the al fresco dining area while rows of rolling pins form a room divider.  the fun details add a touch of whimsy to humble’s design, which leans towards a fuss-free aesthetic in muted shades, punctuated by a bright orange facade.

humble’s approach to food mirrors that simplicity, focusing on good flavours prepared properly using fresh and quality produce. all the sauces and condiments are made in-house. 

the hot food menu began with five light and rustic dishes that, like the pies, are recipes that began as eugene’s personal favourites and dinner party hits. recreating them at humble means repeated testing and tasting to ensure consistency, and not every dish has been successfully adapted.

the ones that have include a silky, mildly gamey chicken liver pate served with house-made onion jam on toast that has proven to be a surprise hit. “i wasn’t sure how many people would like it as chicken liver is an acquired taste, but it’s selling very well. we’ve even seen young children enjoying it.” the roast chicken is another bestseller; the skin is well flavoured with herbs and you would want more of the garlic-enriched gravy. it’s available as a single portion of a quarter chicken and also a whole chicken, for groups of three to four, with advance orders.

the hidden star of the menu is the fried chicken bites, six pieces of tender meat that’s marinated overnight in a sweet and salty seasoning, then deep-fried to golden brown perfection. the crispy skin is a joy to bite into while the meat is moist and full of flavour. there are two savoury pies at the moment – chicken & mushroom, covered in a pastry crust, and steak & onion, topped with mashed potatoes – with a seafood option on its way.

the hidden star of the menu is the fried chicken bites, deep-fried to golden brown perfection

they are all easy, traditional favourites but the simplest food is often the hardest to get right. to achieve perfection in every dish requires a strict attention to detail and at humble, it begins from the ingredients. the banoffee features a specific type of banana that was decided on after eugene had tried countless variants. for the duffee, a slightly bitter durian was chosen to cut through the sweetness. a strawberry variant completes the troika of sweet pie offerings, featuring juicy plumes that are a tad sour for flavour balance. nothing further is added to the fruits so as to retain their natural tastes and all three pies come in single portions as well as 7- and 9-inch sizes.

when they first opened, they only had those three pies for desserts and now there’s also carrot cake (moist and well spiced), chocolate mousse (served in mini coffee mugs, only six portions are available at any one time) and a light and airy humblest cheesecake.

humble is also making it a point to work with local artisanal food producers. bella luca’s homemade fresh pastas, for example, have found their way into two dishes: the rigatoni is tossed in humble’s aromatic pesto and topped with roast chicken, while the pumpkin ravioli is paired with a flavourful chunky tomato-basil sauce and served with a juicy spicy beef or lamb sausage by langkawi-based sailor’s gourmet sausages. “i like the idea of food that’s done with care and love,” eugene explains. “they are producing quality food and not generic ones that are over processed. incorporating their products into our dishes makes everything a little bit unique.”

it does, however, mean that their cost and subsequently their price point are higher than if they were to use generic brands. “we can cut down the cost if we use other produce, but they won’t taste as good,” says eugene. he is currently testing out joey’s homemade peanut butter and there’s also an ice-cream dessert in the pipeline.

from meeting magazine deadlines to rushing lunch hour orders, is the chef’s hat one that he wears comfortably? eugene had once asked anthony bourdain, during a magazine interview, if at 30 he was too old to become a chef. the celebrity chef had answered yes. more than a decade on, he is almost proving bourdain wrong – almost, as he does not consider himself one. “a chef is someone who has gone through formal culinary training and worked in professional kitchens,” he says. “i am an amateur chef at best. if i keep doing this and in five years time i have improved enough, maybe then i will consider myself a chef.” humble, indeed.

 

the humble pie co 11 jalan 17/45, section 17, 46400 petaling jaya, selangor tel +603 7932 1793 opens 11am-10pm, tue-fri; 10.30am-11pm, sat-sun www.facebook.com/thehumblepiecokl

 

this article was first published in crave, the lifestyle pullout of the sunday mail, and the malay mail online on 29 june 2014

a doughnut by another name

hong kong’s version of the ever-popular doughnut, called sa yung, is as elusive as it is enjoyable, found only at a handful of traditional bakeries and coffee shops. luckily for those of us in the klang valley, the delightful pastry is now available at a cafe in kota damansara.

there’s the shopping, the star spotting, the ding ding (trams) rides and of course, the food. you just can’t experience hong kong without at least developing a crush for its culinary charms, in particular the cantonese fare that’s served at all levels of eateries – from kerbside dai pai tong and neighbourhood char chan teng to michelin-starred fine dining restaurants.  then there are the food carts and kiosks that entice you with nibbles like gai dan zai (egg waffles), curry fishballs and if you can stomach it, stinky fermented tofu.

that’s just skimming the surface of a sprawling buffet that i would love to be able to say i have completely ‘been there, eaten that’ and so on each trip to the fast-paced city, i make it a point to sink my teeth into something new. “you have to try sa yung,” a friend who visits hong kong every year and knows her way around its food, told me in earnest. she described it as a crispy, fried puff that’s rolled in sugar and has an airy, spongey centre. “like a doughnut,” she surmised.

the sa yung is indeed known as the hong kong-style doughnut and is believed to have originated from guangdong, where it’s a popular street snack. although, it more closely resembles a beignet in that it’s a deep-fried choux pastry but in terms of appearance, the sa yung can pass for a profiterole.

i just knew that i had to hunt it down and i do mean hunt as the sa yung, while well-loved, is not easily available. my best bet, i was advised, was tai cheong bakery, where former governor chris patten famously got his regular fix of egg tarts. ‘fat patten’s egg tarts’ have since become the old-school patisserie chain’s top seller but prior to that, their sa yung were what customers lined up for.

a crispy, fried puff that’s rolled in sugar and has an airy, spongey centre

i headed to the original outlet on lyndhurst terrace in central, which had been given a facelift and was clad in a soft turquoise facade with gold letterings that’s rather laduree-like. the sa yung, advertised as ‘sugar puffs’, sat in a plastic bread container on the counter. each piece is about the size of a tennis ball and coated in sugar. i bit into the golden ball and the first thing i noticed was how non-greasy it was, despite having been deep fried. the crispy shell gave way to a moist bread-like centre that looked like a thin mesh of fine dough strands. a comforting aroma of eggs wafted from it.

this was indeed comfort food and now i understood why my friend was constantly raving about it. but was this the best sa yung hong kong had to offer? my search then took me to cafe pak lee since 1964, a bing sutt (traditional coffee house) that’s an institution in sai wan ho and just last year, opened a second outlet in sheung wan. at the latter, posters of classic hong kong movies hang on the walls while a caricature of the late anita mui deck a colourful mural – all a nod to the fact that the original pak lee was located next to a cinema. both outlets have the same menu, with sa yung listed under ‘snacks from the 50s’ as egg pearls. there’s nothing pearl-like about them though: bigger than tai cheong’s version, they’re actually quite clunky in shape and size. the pastry was rather dense and dry, with little of the airiness that i had come to expect of sa yung.

i was left wanting for more but where else could i go? the answer, it turned out, was to get out of the city and head to the fishing village of tai o, on the outlying island of lantau. in between the stilt homes, dried seafood shops and non-descript low buildings housing restaurants that flank narrow, car-free roads i found the eponymous tai o bakery. unfortunately i had arrived on a thursday and the bakery, like many of the village’s small family-run establishments, was closed. on weekdays, tai o is a cowboy town with nary a tourist in sight and locals go about their idyllic lives at an unhurried pace. understandably, most establishments rest on weekdays to conserve their energies and resources to handle the incessant weekend crowds.

i tried my luck again on saturday morning. the bakery was just opening its doors when i got there, but there was no sa yung in sight. instead, an empty tray and posters advertising ‘tai o donut’ sat on a foldable table placed outside. “the sa yung is being fried right now,” the lady setting up the table told me, “come back around noon.”

i did, and was duly rewarded with parcels of wok-fresh beauties that were a pure joy to bite into: the well-sugared skin crumbled into a pale yellow centre that melted in the mouth. the contrasting textures – a crisp shell and pillow-soft insides – complemented each other well. i didn’t stop at one. i believed i’d found it right: hong kong’s best sa yung, right there. what a treat but alas, i would have to hop on a flight whenever i wanted to satisfy my sa yung cravings.

fortunately i wasn’t the only person to rue that fact. fashion stylist cum cafe owner grace kue has been an ardent sa yung aficionado since she had her first taste at tai cheong bakery when she was 12. subsequent visits to hong kong only made her love for the pastry grow. sa yung is also available at her hometown of sandakan in sabah, which is known as little hong kong and where influences from the chinese city can be gleaned from its food. when grace opened her amaze k cafe earlier this year, naturally she wanted to include sa yung on the menu and introduce it to food enthusiasts in the klang valley.

the well-sugared skin crumbled into a pale yellow centre that melted in the mouth

her kitchen crew, however, had never been to hong kong or tasted the doughnuts before. guided by grace’s description, her team of young chefs experimented and adapted a recipe for cream puffs to great effect. “they got it right at first try,” said grace proudly.

is it really that easy, i queried. her team agreed to show me the steps. i watched as chef alan bong prepared the batter and mixed it thoroughly, alternating between using his hands and a whisk. his fellow chefs, wang kang jun and mike wong, who also had a hand in developing the recipe, helped to check on the progress. “the recipe is simple,” juntold me, “but it’s not easy to get the texture right.” the batter must be beaten to a silky, starchy consistency and that required quite a bit of arm strength.

once done, alan scooped small portions into a wok of hot oil, working quickly and then constantly tossing the sa yung to make sure they all browned evenly. as the pastry puffed up, they began to resemble oversized fried cempedak  (jackfruit) or even durians. once pong was happy that they were cooked through and the colour was a lovely golden yellow, the sa yung were lifted from the wok and just before serving, dusted with fine sugar.

while they were smaller than the ones i had tried, amaze k’s sa yung certainly looked the part but did they taste the part? the proof, in this case, was in the pastry.  i bit in, a little hesitantly in case it all ended in disappointment, and was instantly assured. it may not have the wow factor of tai o’s offering but it was a proper sa yung that ticked all the right boxes, comparable to tai cheung’s version. to make my snacking experience even more authentic, i washed it down with the creamy, aromatic hong kong-style amaze k milk tea. a taste of hong kong that comforted the tummy and excited the palate, and i didn’t have to leave malaysia to enjoy it.

 

tai cheong bakery 35 lyndhurst terrace, central, hong kong tel +852 8300 8301 opens 7.30am-9pm, monday-saturday; 8.30am-9pm, sunday and public holidays price of sa yung hkd6 a piece www.taicheongbakery.com/tc/home/index.html

cafe pak lee since 1964 ug/f the pemberton, 22-26 bonham strand, sheung wan, hong kong opens 7am-10pm daily price of sa yung hkd8 a piece www.facebook.com/pakleecafesince1964

tai o bakery 66 kat hing street, tai o, lantau island, hong kong tel +852 2985 8621 opens 11am-6pm most days, closes on irregular tuesdays and thursdays; best to call ahead and check vprice of sa yung hkd7 a piece www.facebook.com/taiobakery

amaze k cafe 23 jalan pju3/34, dataran sunway, petaling jaya, selangor tel +03 7733 7657 opens 7.30am-6pm, monday-saturday price of sa yung rm12 for 6 pieces; must be pre-ordered at least one day in advance www.facebook.com/amaze.k.cafe

 

this article was first published in crave, the lifestyle pullout of the sunday mail, and the malay mail online on 22 june 2014

 

 

 

worth your salt(ed fish)

salted fish in a chinese-style bun? you bet.


if you’ve watched a certain hk drama series, you would have heard of this but if like us, you thought it was simply fiction, then you need to head to your nearest pasar malam. we spotted this during one of our rounds at the taman sri rampai market, held every thursday night.

the sign simply indicates ‘ham yue pau’ (salted fish bun) in chinese and that says it all. the buns, similar in size to a regular pau, are deep-fried to a golden brown and when you bite into it, immediately your nostrils will pick up that sharp, pungent aroma of salted fish. if you think it will be one very salty bun, rest assured it’s beautifully balanced out by the rest of the fillings – minced and slices of pork, crunchy jicama cubes and chinese chives – which are similar to that of a sang yuk pau. there’s also a hint of nam yue, that reddish fermented beancurd that is an acquired taste for many and well loved by others. we’re listing this under great market finds and can’t wait to go back for more.

mums know best

a cafe that serves healthy, wholesome meals the way mum would cook for you at home – because it’s run by six mothers who care

 

its punny name may indicate a cakery but for goodness cakes and while they do them pretty well, for goodness cakes is not just about the sweet and creamy. in fact, this 12-day-old cafe goes the opposite direction, making it their mission to dish up healthy, wholesome food that is made from scratch and freshly, on premise each day. here’s the most assuring thing: it’s managed and run by six mothers who would not serve their customers what they themselves would not eat, or feed their children with. the group used to run a home-based catering service and have a good repertoire of recipes under their belt, and one of the mothers was trained at le cordon bleu. 

 

french cuisine is thus not beyond them but for this cafe, they decided to keep to simple, honest, easy favourites like sandwiches – they make the breads themselves – soups, pies and daily specials such as roast chicken and pastas. on the day we visited, they had run out of roast chicken and was well into their second pot of pumpkin soup for the day. we had that as part of three options of set lunch and chose the grilled chicken on focaccia (you can also have it as a wrap) with a fizzy goodness (ice cream soda with a choice of pomegranate or apricot syrup) to wash it down and cool off on a ridiculously hot afternoon.

the pumpkin soup set us off on a great footing, creamy and silky and chock full of pure flavours. interestingly, they offer dried chilli flakes if you like a bit of spice in your soup. we added just a pinch and it did enhance the pumpkin, creating an interesting contrast to the natural sweetness.

while we waited for the sandwich, one of the mothers came by to ask if we would like a top up for the soup – note that refills are not actually part of the deal, but if it’s not a busy time they are happy to offer you extras. we like to think that it’s just mothers being mothers, always ready to impart their nurturing instincts on those they meet. we certainly felt taken care of by the warm, friendly ladies from the minute we stepped in. indeed, for goodness cakes has a laidback, homey vibe that’s supported by a play corner for young children and little touches like the use of colourful plastic glasses for drinking water (with lemon for a refreshing lift).

healthy, wholesome food
that is made from scratch

 

our sandwich arrived shortly afterwards, with a small serving of coral lettuce salad on the side – minimalist, fuss-free plating that supports their ethos of it all being about the good food and fresh ingredients. the focaccia was warm with a lightly toasted crust, its pillow-soft centre sandwiching pulled grilled chicken all held together with pesto. we could find no fault with it: the chicken was tender, well seasoned and moist, and the pesto tasted fresh.

it was a fulfilling meal yet we felt light afterwards, with room left for desserts. we had spied their very butter cake from the moment we stepped in, a pretty confection covered in pink rosette frosting. it was a tad sweet for us but the cake itself was lovely, soft and suitably buttery.

defying what is common cafe practice in the klang valley, for goodness cakes closes early (by 6.30pm) and does not operate on sundays – after all, the mothers need to spend time with their families and children. they are however, open to catering for special functions after hours and on sundays, for a minimum of 15-20 persons.

 

for goodness cakes 36g (ground floor), jalan 27/70a, desa sri hartamas, kl tel +603 6211 6782 opens 8am-6.30pm, mon-sat 

coconut recollection

those good ole’ coconut buns from our childhood are a rarity these days but you can count on ban guan foong bakery to keep rolling out fresh loaves, as they have for more than five decades now.

there are no shops, restaurants or kopitiams in its immediate vicinity. not that you’d expect there to be any for at a glance, the single-storey wooden structure, its facade painted a pastel green, blends right in with its neighbouring chinese new village homes. a peek inside reveals a living room-like area that could well belong in any malaysian chinese home: vintage marble armchairs settled around a round table with a marble top in front of a cabinet supporting a prayer altar. at the same time, there are few indications that this is not a typical residential: the folding doors, the occasional car or motorcycle that pulls up to its porch in the late afternoons only to leave a short while later. if you look carefully, these transient visitors never leave without a plastic bag (or bags) in hand, filled with baked goods that they will enjoy later that evening or more likely, the next morning at breakfast.

for over 50 years now, ban guan foong bakery has been faithfully feeding ipoh folks with their traditional hainanese loaves and coconut buns, both evergreen favourites that have long been weaved into the fabric of traditional malaysian cuisine. and yes, this old school bakery only bakes and sells these two types of breads. on the wall, the ‘menu’ lists them simply as ‘big bread’ and ‘small bread’.

the former are loved for their dry, thick crusts and chewy texture, great for dipping into freshly brewed kopi o or a chunky curry. malaysians who grew up in the 1980s or earlier would remember the latter well, a childfood favourite that was just as popular among older folks as they’re wholesome, filling and easy to digest. these square buns are similar in texture to the hainanese breads, and are filled with desiccated coconut cooked in brown sugar.

biting into either, or both, of ban guan foong’s offerings and you’ll take one step back in time.

 

50 jalan sultan, pasir pinji, ipoh tel +605 321 3891 opens from 6pm, mon-fri; from 2pm, sun; closed sat

 

stuffed sensations

sweet, crunchy goodness under a big shady tree.

 

there’s yong tau foo and when in ipoh, there’s big tree yong tau foo. a pasir pinji stalwart and a local institution since the 1970s, its easy-to-remember moniker is also a great visual marker when you’re in the area. just look for the big, tall, shady tree with a cluster of zinc-roofed food stalls underneath it. big tree’s neighbouring stalls sell a variety of local favourites such as rojak (we love it for the super crunchy kyuri that takes the place of the usual local cucumber), popiah, satay and iced desserts.

still, it’s big big tree’s deep-fried, pork and fish paste-filled delights (locals call them kap liew) that draw the hungriest crowds and what a spread they get to choose from: beancurd skin, brinjal, bitter gourd, tofu, chilli, long beans, okra, yow char kuai (dough cruellers)...

the one that you must not miss is the flat disc-shaped sar kot liew, slabs of chopped jicama or yam bean with a thin beancurd skin. fried to a golden brown, you can enjoy it on its own or accompanied by noodles that you can order from the same stall. we usually skip the noodles and ask for a big bowl of their steaming, aromatic curry broth to dunk our favourite treat into. the combination of the sweet and crunchy sar kot liew with the unctuous, santan-rich spicy soup is just heavenly.

 

652 jalan king, pasir pinji, ipoh opens 8.30am-5.30pm daily

cake boss

a multitude of vibrant colours, natural textures and familiar sweet flavours take shape, by hand and using traditional recipes, at pusat kuih and kek khoo eng chee six days a week.

 wobbly and pink. layers of pandan green over milky santan. sunshine yellow slices with a caramelised skin. sticky rectangular cakes with a swirly blue marble effect. bowls of dark, brownish red puddings studded with beans. translucent green balls, their chocolate-toned filling showing up faintly through, rolled in pans of flour. golden brown fritters and puffs in a variety of shapes. large ‘cupcakes’ in pink and yellow.  glutinous orbs the shade of lavender rolled up in pandan leaf cones.

for nyonya kuih lovers, pusat kuih dan kek khoo eng chee is the name to worship for their smorgasbord of traditional sweet cakes that are all handmade (and mostly steamed) at their shop in pasir pinji. for more than 20 years now, this family-owned business has been supplying kuihs to distributors around ipoh, besides selling direct from their shop.

their candy-toned creations are spread out over several large tables and it seems that any time of the day, there will be a line of customers waiting to get their sweet tooth satisfied. and these are no small-time buyers; it is common to watch orders of tens of pieces being packed into containers fashioned out of food cartons, lined with plastic sheets. needless to say, the kuihs disappear almost just as quickly as fresh batches appear from the back of the shop, where you can observe them taking shape.

we tried about 10 varieties of their offerings and they were mostly hits. the bingka ubi is particularly recommended: soft, moist and fibrous, which is a good sign of its pure ingredients, and is not too sweet. the hardened bottom layer provides textural balance while the caramelised top adds to its aroma. the kuih kochi, on the other hand, was a letdown with its mushy skin but the coconut filling tasted fresh and well flavoured.

besides the pretty steamed kuihs and fritters, they also make and sell old-school baked cakes and pastries such as chiffon and marble cakes, egg tarts and mini egg cake (kai tan kuin).

 

44 jalan tokong, pasir pinji, ipoh opens 8am-8pm, mon-sat; closed sun

spicy, sublime satisfaction

curry laksa, when done properly like sun kee’s, is manna from culinary heaven.

 

first, the colour: a milky orange, with a thin layer of fiery chilli oil pooling on the surface. secondly, the aroma: a potent, well-blended mix of curry leaves, chillies and five spice powder wafting along with the steam. thirdly, the presentation: slivers of roast pork sit half submerged in the soup, underneath which oodles of yellow noodles peek through, and garnished with a bunch of fresh mint leaves and half a juicy lime.

sun kee pure nyonya curry laksa tastes every bit as scrumptious and satisfying as it looks, every mouthful of the strong soup chocked full of savoury curry goodness with a good level of heat that warms the throat without setting it on fire. a squeeze of the lime gave it a zesty lift and enhanced the rich spice tones. the siew yoke is tender where it needs to be without being cloyed by the fat layers while the crackling maintained a good level of crunch, considering they had have a good soak in the soup. the other protein is provided by juicy, slightly bloody cockles whereas vegetables take the form of properly fat bean sprouts – the only way ipoh taugeh are. Well, there you have it – heaven in a plastic orange bowl.

 

thim sun loong kopitiam, 22-36 jalan peh kee koh, taman kampar, ipoh opens around 4pm onwards

on a roll

paper thin is out, bring on the chewy and sturdy. popiah skin, that is.

 

a good popiah skin should be paper thin, almost opaque even, and should have a dry, slightly coarse texture. when filled and rolled up, the popiah needs to be handled with care and eaten as soon as possible before the jicama broth and sauces seep through the porous skin.

we thought we knew everything about a good popiah until we tried this version at thim sun loong kopitiam in ipoh, near pasir pinji, where sun kee nyonya curry laksa reigns supreme. the popiah at this corner coffeeshop surprised us in the most delightful way. the skin was stretchy, chewy and thicker than our (now former) benchmark of what a good version should be. at first bite, we were ready to give it the thumbs down but then as we bit into the generous filling, we had serious second thoughts. the jicama was well flavoured and judging from how tender the strips are, have undergone the necessary braise time.

besides the usual accompaniments the likes of minced fried tofu, cucumber and lettuce, there were also finely chopped up hehbi. slightly spicy, they tempered the soft texture of the other ingredients with a lovely crunch – something a certain mall-based chain of popiah stalls does with fried bits of flour, which we consider a cop out. using hehbi, on the other hand, not only impart that gratifying crispness but also add to the taste profile.

not able to finish them at one sitting (thanks to bellies full of the curry laksa!) we packed the leftovers to sup on much later and the ‘tough’ skin proved its mettle. it not only held its neat, compactly-packed shape well but more importantly, did not suffer what other popiahs would surely have after so long: sogginess. instead, the ingredients stayed moist (the hehbi did get a bit damp) as the liquids did not seep through the skin. we’d like all our popiahs to be made this way from now on.

 

thim sun loong kopitiam, 22-36 jalan peh kee koh, taman kampar, ipoh opens around 4pm onwards

 

china chic

three heritage shophouses converted into a multi-purpose outlet for dining, art, shopping and live performances. on your first visit, you could well be overwhelmed by what appears to be one long – it just goes on and on, all the way to lebuh victoria at the back – and narrow cafe that teems with eclectic charm but china house is actually divided into 14 different spaces that segue seamlessly from one to another. it's a George Town institution that deserves repeated mentions even if it may not require much introduction by now, because it's one of those places you will want to keep going back to.

step in from the lebuh pantai entrance and you will be woken up by the aroma wafting from kopi c espresso’s coffee bar, where gourmet coffees are brewed using beans from singapore’s nylon roasters and toby's. to the left is btb (bon ton bistro, named after china house's sister property in langkawi) & restaurant, where dark walls and dim lighting offers a mellow ambience that’s a stark contrast to the all-white walls and mirror-decked kopi c. a small area within btb is currently hosting pop-up shop lapan, an informal collective of handmade labels offering artistic creations by kl-based independent designers and artisans. upstairs, art space I and art space II stretch all the way to the front of the house again and surround a rectangular air well.

 

walk straight on from kopi c; a traditional wood and glass chinese door opens up to reveal 14 chairs, named literally after the mismatched seats placed around a 12ft-long marble table and surrounded by antique and contemporary art in pops of bright colours. during the day, natural sunlight streams into what is can be used as a meeting space but was designed to host private functions and even cooking classes. the next room houses vine & single, and is dressed like a gentleman’s club with dark wood panelling and leather couches but punctuated with vibrant chinese accordion lanterns and bar stools. just outside vine is the reading room, an open area made up of a long table flanked by  bookshelves.                                                                                

that’s the first two (side by side) shophouses covered, the third one has its entrance on lebuh victoria, which is the back of lebuh pantai and is linked by the chinese-style courtyard cafe where a short lap pool (not for swimming) and trees, often decorated with red ribbons, make for a shady garden hangout and have hosted a number of small weddings. walk through that and you will come to the canteen & bar - borders bookstores has a small outpost here too - where the spotlight regularly shines on live music performances and every first thur of each month, comedians take centrestage. above canteen is upstairs at victoria, a spacious and loungey spot that looks like the tasteful showroom of a vintage furniture store that’s ideal for a cosy gathering.

look down from the art space air well and feast your eyes on china house’s piece de resistance, which tempt with creamy, airy, spongey goodness in various shapes, sizes, heights, fillings and toppings. it’s the beach st bakery’s famous cake table, where every square inch is covered by some 30 or more varieties of baked beauties resting on cake stands and under glass cloches. from cream-frosted to fruit-studded and syrup-drenched, we have yet to meet a cake we didn’t like. there are also some golden brown savoury options in the mix.  despite the many well decorated corners spread out around the multiple spaces, customers are inevitably drawn to this iconic table, making it the most photographed feature in the house.

don’t worry if you can’t work out where the 14 spaces are, you can sit almost anywhere (except 14 chairs and the art galleries) and order your choice of cakes – trust us, you won’t stop at one.

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china house 153 & 155 lebuh pantai, george town, penang  tel +604 263 7299 opens 9am-1am daily www.chinahouse.com.my

beautiful butter

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if you didn’t see them inside the cheese freezer, you could well have passed them off as soap but the oblong bars wrapped in wax paper have the words le beurre bordier printed across the top and they are what professional chefs, culinary critics and foodies have affectionately crowned the world’s best butters.

Silky smooth and unctuous, jean yves bordier’s artisanal produce is handmade in small batches and comes in a number of flavours. the smoked salt is subtle; lemon has just the right amount of zest for a citrus lift; espelette, an intense orange block with tiny red speckles, is savoury with a hint of heat. The standout is the yuzu, which presents one of the most enjoyable way to savour the popular japanese citrus. unwrap the nondescript bright yellow bar and immediately you will discern the tangy aroma. Slap a dot (yes, that's all you need, we promise) on a piece of toast, add a topping if you’d like – we tried it with some concentrated bacon jam – and the sharp flavour still cuts through.

 

available at jaya grocer, the intermark, jalan tun razak, kl price rm19.90 for each 125g bar

dining under the train tracks

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if sitting down for a meal right underneath the train tracks sounds like a trip for the adventurous, then wangsa maju must be adrenaline centre for the food-venturous. specifically, it is the open-air dining area of restoran desa setapak, a corner kopitiam that's been in existence way before the tracks were built. when the wangsa maju mrt station came about, the tracks just happen to run right across and above the stalls and dining table. if thailand's maeklong market can continue to exist with a train running right through it, what's a bit of train trundling above one's head? (which you can hear but not see when sitting underneath)

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on balmy nights, it's a very comfortable dining spot and you hardly notice the trains. a small tree stands right in the centre, its roots deep underneath the tarred surface and with tiny red lanterns hanging from its branches, provides a bit of ambience. mostly though, it's the white flourescent lights from the more than 20 stalls, the nonstop movement from hungry diners deciding what to eat, hardworking hawkers working their respective stations and their foreign workers delivering food to the eagerly waiting that make up this unique setting.

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food wise, the stalls serve the usual fare - a good variety of noodles, western grills, thai stirfries, popiah, lor bak and the ubiquitous chap fun. the latter, a stall that goes by the rather complicated name (and contrastingly, bare facebook page) of sabor'z familia, offers a daily spread of more than 100 dishes (fried stuff make up at least 15 of them), including some lovely curries and meat dishes. but it is their kaarage-style vegetable fritters that is worth mentioning. well seasoned and chock full of cabbage, onions, carrots and spring onions with an aromatic, crisped skin and moist centre. it's a great snack to have on its own too. for leafy greens though, the vegetarian stall next to it does a much better job of retaining the natural flavours without drowning the vegetables in starch-heavy sauces. 

one stand-out is the popiah stall, parked against a cement column in front of sabor'z. there's a minimum order of 2 pieces and a choice of three variants: regular popiah, salad popiah (with a coleslaw-like filling) and seaweed-wrapped popiah (your choice of either filling). the regular popiah is excellent, fat rolls filled with well-braised julienned jicama that still maintain a bit of bite, finely diced omelette and tofu. if you like your popiah basah really wet, ask them to ladle over some of the jicama broth over the rolls. 

 

restoran desa setapak jln 14/27b, desa setapak, kl opens daily; usual kopitiam hours, typically from around 8am till late, with different stalls opening for breakfast, lunch and dinner find it if you're driving, just look for the wangsa maju lrt station. turn left right after the station and you will be in the cluster of shops with parking out front; restoran desa setapak is on your right, facing the main road. some cars park along the main road. if going by lrt, disembark at the wangsa maju station. upon exiting the station, the first restaurant you will see is a mamak; restoran desa setapak is right opposite it.