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

 

 

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