Tuesday, May 31, 2005

HOT ROCK AFFAIR

Although it isn't my first encounter with hot stone cooking, our recent experience of dining on fresh, live tiger prawns and 'soon hock' (marbled goby) cooked a la minute was immensely enjoyable.

The novel and uncommon method of using stones that are specially sourced from Japan (they look remarkably like the ones you'd find in sauna rooms) is now being promoted at the Cheng Ho Court restaurant, Mines Beach Resort.

You can be assured that this table-side cooking presentation using a large bowl of hot stones will garner much curiosity from other tables once fellow diners witness the billowing clouds of steam and sizzling sounds emanating from it.

Firstly, a large stainless steel pot filled with several grey rocks that have been pre-heated up in the kitchen was brought to our table. A flat steamer tray was placed over the hot stones for the tiger prawns (RM10 nett per 100 gm) to be laid on top. Water was subsequently poured into the pot of hot stones, resulting in billowing clouds of steam that cooked the prawns really quickly, within just 2-3 minutes.

One can't help but inhale the enticing aroma exuded from the pot as the 'drunken' prawns were earlier marinated with some Chinese wine. It was certainly an acid test that ensured the inherent freshness of the seafood used as anything less than that would result in a powdery texture.

According to Leong, the restaurant team tried using other varieties of seafood for the hot stone cooking but only the tiger prawns and 'soon hock' can withstand this quick steaming method.

As expected, the prawns turned out to be very sweet and springy to the bite. Imbued with a pleasing, understated Chinese wine flavour, they tasted out of this world without the need for any other condiment. But they are just as exquisite when dipped into a special sauce concocted by Chef Chin Hock Seng. The palate-pleasing sauce, which has minced garlic, bird’s eye chilli, Thai sauce and some herbs in it, managed to perk up the natural flavour of the prawns without overpowering them.

The ‘soon hock’ (RM17 nett per 100 gm) was prepared a little differently as the fish has been deboned and came topped with ‘enoki’ mushrooms, sliced 'seng kwa' (ridged gourd) and ‘kei chi’ (Chinese wolfberries) before the dish was steamed in the pot of hot stones. The end result was a superbly cooked fish with just the right amount of doneness and its natural juices firmly intact.

I found myself imbibing every single drop of the nutritious, wholesome soup of double-boiled black chicken with bamboo pith, black mushroom, Chinese wolfberries, dried Chinese mustard, a whole dried scallop and ‘yok chok’ (a type of Chinese herb). Priced at RM23++ per bowl, this signature specialty of Cheng Ho Court is definitely worth every single sen.

Another popular item here is the ‘lat chee kwai fei kai’ or loosely translated as spicy imperial chicken. The dish actually comprises steamed chicken with pickled carrots and spring onion (RM26++ for half, RM52++ for whole chicken). Living up to its majestic name, the boneless, bite-size pieces of chicken with its nice yellow skin turned out to be surprisingly lean but fabulously scrumptious. What made this stood apart from other run-of-the-mill chicken dish was the ingenious pairing of pickled carrots and florets of fresh spring onion in it. The pickles’ mild sourness, the spring onion’s sharp flavour and the light, accompanying soya sauce lent a tantalising nuance to the succulent chicken and added a little contrast with their crisp, crunchy textures.

We also had a vegetarian dish of deep-fried ‘enoki’ or golden needle mushrooms with pine nuts and a sublime sauce. It was a most delicate dish in which the deep-fried mushrooms’ crispy ‘tempura’-like batter was aptly matched by the rich, nutty taste of pine nuts and bound together by the sweet-sour nuances of the accompanying sauce that was a concoction of hot bean sauce, vinegar and sugar.

Dinner concluded with some delightful dessert as the restaurant is famed for its chilled durian pudding (RM5.50++), herbal jelly (RM4.50++) and Chinese pancake.

Digging deep into the smooth durian pudding, I was delighted to discover the mouth-watering, aromatic durian purée underneath! Even the Chinese pancake was one of the best I have eaten as the outer layer of pastry was light and flaky with very little trace of oil. The lotus paste filling deserved special mention as the real taste of lotus seeds was more evident on the palate as the amount of sugar used to prepare the paste has been cut down considerably.

Credit must be given to Chef Chin Hock Seng who heads the kitchen team of Cheng Ho Court. With more than 20 years of experience under his torque, Chef Chin admitted that he is quite conservative in his approach to the culinary arts and prefers to remain grounded in the tried and tested Chinese cooking techniques.

“I read a lot to obtain new ideas. Sometimes brainstorming and discussing ideas with colleagues, fellow chefs and customers help tremendously,” he said.

Since Cheng Ho Court is a pork-free restaurant, Chef Chin admitted it was a challenge to ensure the taste of his Chinese dishes is not compromised. For example, he spent many more hours and expanded much effort in churning out a good superior chicken stock that acts as a base for many of his dishes. He also stressed that no monosodium glutamate (MSG) is used at all in the food preparation at Cheng Ho Court as the hotel owner will not permit it.

The 148-seat restaurant has two private dining rooms available and is renowned for its daily ‘dim sum’ for lunch.

CHENG HO COURT (pork-free)
MINES BEACH RESORT & SPA
Jalan Dulang
MINES Resort City
43300 Seri Kembangan
Selangor
Tel: 8943 6688

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

DUMPLINGS GALORE!

With ‘duanwu jie’ or rice dumplings festival just around corner, many Chinese housewives and enterprising food stall operators will be busy churning out delicious cone-shaped rice dumplings, wrapped in bamboo and lotus leaves to celebrate the occasion.

Since yours truly do not have the time nor inclination to make this traditional delicacy (I will make an attempt one of these days), I end up buying the 'choong' from my favourite shop in Bandar Sungai Long.

My personal favourites are the Nyonya ones that are slightly sweetish due to its finely minced pork and candied winter melon filling and the rice dumpling itself stained a lovely blue from the juice of 'pea flowers' or 'bunga telang' as it is known. Unfortunately, really good and tasty ones are hard to come by now. Our family used to purchase lots from a Mrs Wong whose stall in Petaling Jaya Old Town but even standards have dropped somewhat in recent years. I also recalled a scrumptious one presented to me by a good friend when she came to KL from Melaka. Alas, todate I have yet to savour any that has come close to eclipsing these two benchmarks.

When it comes to savoury rice dumplings, however, I find my 'Ah Kim' or maternal aunt's version simply unsurpassed. Until I discover Tasty Rice Dumplings in Bandar Sg Long that is.

Opened just three years ago in this fast-growing housing hub, Madam Elaine Chow's shop has drawn a regular stream of customers not only from the Klang Valley, but some as far as Singapore and Hong Kong just to purchase her delicious rice dumplings.

The Ipoh-born Hakka lady who now resides in Kuala Lumpur for the past 22 years, first learned the art of making ‘choong’ from her own mother. Her interest was further heightened after a short stint managing a ‘halal’ rice dumpling stall in a major hypermarket five years ago.

Being a stickler for details who demand impossibly high standards from her workers, Madam Chow admitted she is very particular about the dumplings' overall quality, whether it is the raw ingredients, the way the rice dumplings are filled ('the ingredients have to be centred exactly') or their final shape.

She insists on using only the freshest pork meat and ensures the supplier delivers it to her shop early in the day so that the meat can be prepared quickly for the filling before the quality and taste deteriorate. She balks at the very idea of using frozen meat as it will greatly affect the taste of the dumplings.

Other stringent requirments include the use of premium grade, pure glutinous rice and good quality salted egg yolks. Even the raffia string for tying the wrapped dumplings is specially selected not only for its food-safe standard and its ability to withstand the steaming process.

Her current selection of rice dumplings are fruits of her painstakingly experiments with different recipes where family and friends were roped in to sample her creations so that they could provide her with feedback. She even travelled to Penang, Taiwan and China to sample and learn how different kinds of rice dumplings tasted and what made them special.

Today, her patience and dedication are amply rewarded as many customers from near and far patronize her shop just to buy the ‘choongs’. Many became customers by sheer word of mouth recommendation. Her wide clientele include Malaysians who have migrated to far-flung countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Netherlands and Australia as well as food lovers from Singapore, China and Hong Kong.

Her best-selling one is the Supreme Dumpling (RM4.20 each) that comes with extra generous filling of pork, chestnut, black mushroom and salted egg yolk.

Equally popular is the ‘kee chang’ or plain rice dumpling made with alkaline water (80 sen for plain, RM1.00 for one with red bean filling). The lovely yellow dumpling is superb with or without its red bean filling. Its texture is well-balanced, not too compact or too soft. They are absolutely yummy when eaten dipped in some sugar or spread with home-made ‘kaya’ (local egg jam).

The Chilli Shrimp Dumpling (RM3.00 each) is a hit amongst younger customers due to its unusual filling of dried prawn ‘sambal’. Let me assure you the 'sambal' is extremely delicate in its spiciness but succeeds in infusing the dumpling with an enticing flavour.

Another superb version to look out for is the Spicy Salted Dumpling (RM3.00 each). It comprises glutinous rice that has been fried beforehand with soya sauce and then ‘spiced up’ with five-spice powder. There is no salted egg yolk in it but has a filling of dried prawns and black mushrooms instead.

The pale Cantonese Dumpling (RM3.50 each) epitomizes the ‘ching’ (clear) flavour that is so predominant in Cantonese cuisine. With a delicious filling of mung beans, black mushroom, pork and salted egg yolk, this dumpling is possibly the most distinctive of all the eight varieties sold here.

The remaining varieties are the vegetarian rice dumpling (RM2.50 each) filled with mock meat, mung beans and black mushrooms., another savoury dumpling with black eye peas, pork, black mushrooms and salted egg yolk, spicy salted dumpling (RM3.50) that has dried prawns and five-spice powder in it, and a Penang Nyonya ‘chang’ (RM2.90).

Since no preservatives are added, Madam Chow advised us that it is best to either consume the rice dumplings as soon as possible or store them in the fridge. “They can last for a week if kept properly chilled. If you intend to freeze it, then they can keep for about a month.”

She anticipates the demand to increase as the Dumplings Festival draws nearer. However, Madam Chow told us she has no plans to add any novel or fancy fillings to her existing dumplings selection due to skilled labour constraints and the need to ensure quality is maintained.

Sounds like the lady has her rice dumplings business all wrapped up and only early bird customers will get a tasty sampling of it.

TASTY RICE DUMPLINGS (non-halal)
28 Jalan SL1/2 Bandar Sungai Long
Jalan Cheras Batu 11
43000 Selangor

T: 9076 6130

Wednesday, May 18, 2005


Crispy Slices of Pork Rolls Posted by Hello

Piquant Fish Maw Soup Posted by Hello

Delicious sweet & sour fish Foochow-style Posted by Hello

FANTASTIC FOOCHOW FOOD

We had a chance to sample some typical Foochow dishes in Sitiawan, a small town in the state of Perak. A renowned Foochow stronghold, Sitiawan's own claim to fame includes being the birthplace of the infamous head of the Communist Party in Malaya, Chin Peng and a former Malaysian Minister of Transport. Kampung Koh, another village near Sitiawan is known for its spicy, garlicky chilli sauce.


Many of the residents here are descendents from the Foochows of Kutien, one of the 10 sub-districts in Foochow, China. Since the 10th century, Foochow or Fuzhou was the capital of the Fujian province and one of the greatest tea ports in the world. It subsequently became a treaty port following the Opium War (1839–1842).

These hardy, down-to-earth people thrives on hearty, home-style dishes that are substantial in portions, big on taste but not on presentation.

Thick, starchy soups and stews feature prominently with as many as five or six soups served in a typical Foochow banquet.

For some truly authentic Foochow food, check out Restoran Sun Hong Siong, an unassuming family-run eatery right in the heart of Ayer Tawar town in Perak.

Our meal began with a deliciously smooth and slightly starchy broth of minced beancurd, crab meat, minced pork and chopped cabbage, interspersed with threads of beaten egg and sesame oil. It reminded us of a good, politically correct ‘shark’s fin’ soup!

Next came a dish of sweet and sour fish. Using a type of local fish known as ‘teik soh’ (due to my own poor grasp of Hokkien, I was unable to fathom the English name but this long, tubular fish is preferred for its firm, white flesh that does not have too many bones in it), it was sliced and deep-fried before being doused with a piquant sweet and sour sauce. Fiery red in colour, the sweet and sour nuances of this distinctive sauce bore hints of Worchestershire sauce, garlic and ground chillies. Also included in the dish was some sliced potatoes.

The pork rolls here are good enough to rival the best Penang ‘loh bak’ (pork rolls). Tasty enough to be eaten on its own, the rolls comprise lots of minced pork and liver, lightly seasoned and then wrap in a light web of pig’s caul. Coated in a light batter, the sliced pork rolls are crispy and utterly delectable eaten with some pickled cucumber.

Known colloquially as ‘big dish fry’, the plate of ‘chap chye’ (mixed vegetables) comprised cauliflower stir-fried with slivers of dried squid, shrimps, baby corn, black fungus, glass noodles, carrot, mushroom, beancurd sticks, Chinese cabbage, minced pork and whole pips of garlic.

The second soup that we had stood out in complete contrast from the earlier one. Redolent with strips of fish maw, black fungus, beaten egg, minced meat and ginger in it, the soup tantalized our tastebuds with a zesty intermingling of sour, spicy and sweet flavours.

Personally, I like the fragrant oil chicken with sliced onions, potatoes, ‘choy sum’ (Chinese mustard leaves), pickled cucumber and chillies as well as the ubiquitous Foochow fishballs. Superbly bouncy and sweet with generous minced pork filling, the Foochow fishballs came in a clear soup with lots of sea kelp and beaten egg.

Dinner concluded with ‘lor mee’ or thick, fat yellow noodles braised in yet another thick, eggy broth. For those who are Hokkiens, this specialty is comfort food at its best and will definitely go down well.

Dining at Sun Hong Siong is quite an experience in itself as you can see the cooks at work, frying and dishing up their customers’ orders speedily from the giant woks. The shop building itself is still a simple wooden structure with cement floor, facing the main road. Throughout the evening we were there, the restaurant drew a steady stream of customers that kept all its tables occupied.

The food portions are big and substantial. Dishes are roughly priced between RM10 and RM20 each depending on what you order and the portion size. In the mornings, you can also have ‘dim sum’ such as steamed ‘pau’ (soft buns) and ‘siew mai’ (pork dumplings) for breakfast.

So if you wish to sample some truly authentic Foochow food minus the frills, then this is just the place to go to.

RESTORAN SUN HONG SIONG (non-halal)
Jalan Besar
Ayer Tawar
Perak Darul Ridzuan
Tel: 05 6726544

Friday, May 06, 2005

PRIME FOCUS ON RETRO CLASSICS

Humans are creatures of habit. Despite our constant yearning for anything that’s new and exciting, we will eventually return to the tried and tested, and find great comfort in the things that are familiar and known to us.

How many times have we hanker for those dishes that stood the test of time and remind us of good times shared with family and friends, and of special occasions in our lives?So that is mainly the reason why classical favourites like steaks and oysters reign supreme at the Prime Grill Room at the Crown Princess Kuala Lumpur.

The restaurant exudes a stylish décor with lots of brown timber paneling, plush leather seats in dark chocolate and earth-toned carpet. Sleek, dark mahogany tables and lush green plants are offset with modern artworks in vibrant hues and peach lampshades. It’s the perfect blend of old world colonial style and restrained modernity.What I really like about this outlet is that diners are permitted to smoke only at the bar and lounge area but not in the main dining area. According to the management, they reckon second-smoke does affect the taste of the food served, besides imposing on the comfort of non-smoking diners.

If you are one of those who like a tipple before dinner, the wine selection is competitively priced for a hotel outlet with prices hovering close to retail pricing, starting at RM52++ onwards. The current list is predominantly Australian and touts many boutique wines including the house specialty, Turkey Flat Grenache Noir 2001, Barossa (RM89++ per bottle). In addition, you’d find a small number of Chilean, French and New Zealand wines plus one or two from Spain and South Africa.

So how's the food? Not too bad - out of ten, I'd say it garners a 6.5 rating. Chef Allan Parish of the Grace Hotel in Sydney (whose former master was the celebrated Ozzie chef, Neil Perry), was tasked with training the local team here.

A great appetiser to get you going is the salad of ‘harissa’ spiced prawns (RM42+) with baby tomatoes, pickled gherkins, shredded red cabbage and romaine lettuce. The exotic ‘harrisa’, a Tunisian condiment of red chilli peppers and salt covered in olive oil lent a splendid dimension to the crustaceans’ natural flavour, and added a tantalizing accent to the salad.

But I daresay the classic smoked salmon rose on blinis with mustard dill dressing (RM28++) is hard to eclipse while the salad of baby beans, tomato confit and salsa verde (RM18++) is surprisingly good. The crunchiness of the baby French beans is greatly enhanced by the refreshing tartness of ‘salsa verde’, a chunky, zesty sauce made from ‘tomatillos’ (Mexican husk tomato), green chilli and cilantro.

Equally good is the chilli spiced calamari with avocado and mango salsa (RM28++) for its varying textures and differing flavours. Too bad the fresh oysters were not as freshly shucked as they should have been (RM54++ per half dozen). If you fancy the molluscs cooked, then opt for oyster Mornay (RM56++), oyster Kilpatrick (RM58++) and oyster Rockefeller (RM58++).

For comfort food at its best, nothing beats the cream of shiitake, oyster and button mushroom (RM26++) and the Boston clam chowder (RM16++). The former is creamy and redolent with the beguiling taste and aroma of mushroom whilst the latter is richly satisfying with the delicious taste of fresh clams evident on the palate.

The outlet signature dish of char-grilled beef tenderloin with harisa prawns and caramelized shallots (RM68++) is excellent. Its ‘melt in the mouth’ texture is well-complemented by some caramelized shallots.Another memorable main course is the duck breast cooked with apples and potatoes (RM42++), a rustic French dish that oozes homely, earthy flavours. There was a thin layer of fat underneath the duck skin, ensuring adequate juiciness to the sliced breast meat. Its rich, gamey taste was nicely assuaged by the fruitiness of the cooked apple dices whilst the potato dices were the perfect foil for the robustness of the entire ensemble.

Personally I find the crisp skinned salmon with peppered green beans, warm potato salad and aioli (RM49++) not particularly outstanding as the overall combination turned out too heavy and rich on the palate.

The retro overtones extend to dessert that includes crêpes suzette (RM18++), crème brûlée (RM16++), gratinated fruits with vanilla gratin (RM16++), nougat parfait with chocolate and orange sauce (RM16++), and dark chocolate and white chocolate mousse (RM18++).Be forewarned that the crème brûlée is a huge portion and can be a little daunting should you have had the appetizers and mains earlier. Still, its silky smoothness is imbued with a lovely vanilla taste and fragrance.

Prefer something lighter? Stick with gratinated fruits - strawberries, kiwi and mango are covered with vanilla sauce and a light dusting of icing sugar, then lightly browned in the broiler or oven. Served with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream, this confection is a befitting conclusion to the meal.

JOM MAKAN!

Selamat Datang! That's 'Welcome' in Malay - to all food lovers out there, join me as I embark on my culinary adventures.

'Jom Makan' essentially means 'Let's Eat!' in Malay. I have yet to come across anyone who can refuse such an opportunity to enjoy the amazing variety of food life has to offer. Indeed, I daresay eating is probably one of - if not - the biggest and most popular passion amongst Malaysians.

Whether it's sidestreet hawker's fare or the poshest fine-dining restaurants, you can be assured of an entertaining, honest-to-goodness, tell it like it is account of what I have eaten. So what are you waiting for? Jom Makan!