Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Madame Kwan's in Pavilion Mall, Kuala Lumpur ... Malaysian Home Cooking at the Food Court


I was excited to be in Kuala Lumpur for a business meeting last week --  my stomach and I were ready to makan (Indonesian for "eat") and rich, hot, spicy Malay cuisine is one of my favourites.


Just a good ten minute stroll from my hotel is the Pavilion Mall, Kuala Lumpur's leading upmarket mall.  The food court of the Pavilion has a number of stalls and restaurants that come highly recommended for good Malay cooking.


Madam Kwan's beckoned to me with its bright and open interiors.  The sign clearly said nasi lemak possibly my favourite nasi dish.   There were a lot of full tables inside, an indication that the food is bound to be good.
A smiling likeness of Madam Kwan stood by the entrance, welcoming me to come in and try her cooking.


The fare is typically Malay, most of what you would eat in street hawker centres, brought into a more sanitised restaurant setting.  The prices are also two to three times more than what you'd pay for in a hawker stall.


My friend ordered a mixed satay plate -- which came with six sticks of chicken and beef satay, sliced red onions, cucumbers, fresh pineapple chunks, nasi impit and a bowl of peanut sauce. 
Impit is compressed rice,  steamed and cut into cubes, sort of like a denser version of our local puto.  It's typically eaten with satay.  I didn't try the satay, which my friend pronounced as tender and well cooked but I did have a bit of nasi impit, liberally coating it with the peanut sauce.



To my mind, an excellent peanut sauce is the key to enjoying satay.  Madam Kwan's peanut sauce had just the right amount of hot-salty-sweet flavours from the blend of spices and the fresh roasted peanuts.  I could have dunked more impit but I had to stop myself -- after all, this was someone else's plate that I was mooching from!


Of course I ordered nasi lemak. Madam Kwan's nasi lemak is not quite the version that I always get in Singapore.  Perhaps this is more typical of nasi lemak in Malaysia.
On my plate, I had a creamy, bright yellow kari ayam (chicken curry) that had tender chicken parts in a smooth sauce that was just the right consistency -- neither too thick nor too thin and watery.
On the side, there was sambal ikan bilis or fried anchovies in a spicy sambal sauce with just a hint of sour tamarind.  There was also some finely minced fish floss and a whole boiled egg.
The nasi, cooked in coconut milk, was fluffy, aromatic and perfectly rounded out the flavour medley.
My nasi lemak was delicious and seemed really home made -- I could imagine Madam Kwan toiling over her hot stove ... cooking, tasting and plating it in her kitchen!





Monday, June 30, 2014

Pucker up for these sour-and-salty baby potatoes ... Thank you Bon Appetit!


The internet is a wonderful source when you need fun food ideas that are also very easy to make. I found this recipe for Crispy Salt and Vinegar Potatoes on Bon Appetit and knew that I just had to make this.  Sour - salty is my favourite taste combination!


The recipe called for 2 pounds of Yukon Gold potatoes, quartered.  I decided to use 1 kilo of baby potatoes instead.  Since I was at work the whole afternoon, Jay gladly pitched in and did the prep work. The recipe called for a cup of white vinegar (Datu Puti was all we had on hand), 1 spoonful of  rock salt, and just enough water to cover the potatoes in a small saucepan.  Bring potatoes and liquid to a boil, reduce and simmer till potatoes are fork tender but not mushy.  Drain and pat dry.
Other ingredients include butter for frying, finely chopped chives (I used spring onion instead) and an additional two spoons of vinegar and more rock salt.


 When I got home the potatoes were ready for the final cooking step. Fry them in butter and olive oil (you need some good olive oil so that the butter doesn't burn).  It smelled so good!  
Fry the potatoes till browned and the skin turns a bit crunchy.  
Season with freshly ground pepper.  Just as you turn off the heat, drizzle with the remaining 2 spoons of white vinegar.  I have a small jar of fleur de sel from Normandy that I have been hoarding and I used that for the final sprinkle of salt.  Finally, garnish with the finely minced spring onions.


It took less than twenty minutes cooking time and was an ideal side dish to the roast chicken that I had bought for dinner.  Store bought main dish paired with an easy, flavourful home made side dish. Bon Appetit!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Tender is the Night. Melt in your mouth Char Siew at West Villa, Lee Gardens (My Week-end in Hong Kong, Part 4)


Travel takes me out of my day to day vegetarian existence.  I am able to rationalise eating anything and everything, chalking it down to not wanting to miss a taste experience that is iconic and representative of a place.  And what can be more iconic for Hong Kong than cantonese roast meats?  Char siew pork, specifically.  On this trip, I was able to try one of the best char siew I had ever had.



Friday night dinner was with good friend and long time Hong Kong resident Beba, who always knows the best places to eat anywhere in town.  We almost forgot about dinner as we talked up a storm!  Before we realised it, we were both hungry, it was past 8 p.m. and the sooner we got to food, the better we would feel.  Beba decided that West Villa, just around the corner at Lee Gardens, was a convenient and reliably good place to eat.  This branch in Causeway Bay is on the 5th floor of Lee Gardens 2.  It occupies the whole floor and is what you see, when you get out of the lift.


The place seemed abuzz with diners -- this was Friday night after all.  But perhaps due to the lateness of the hour, we were able to find an empty table.  



We were seated quite a way towards the back and near the kitchen.  It was my first time to try West Villa and Beba said that it was even more popular for yum cha or morning and afternoon tea.  
That means I'll have to come back and try their dim sum one of these days.


Ice cold Tsing Tao beer is always a good choice to start a meal!  


The english menu was not as thick as the chinese menu.  Beba said that this was a particular disadvantage for non-Chinese speaking patrons.  You never get to see what the real specialties are.  But the english menu listed Barbecued Pork as the signature dish and so we had an order, 
which was good for two.


My macro photo skills are not the best and I guess you wouldn't know how good it was from this shot.  But this char siew was definitely one of the best I had ever enjoyed in Hong Kong.  
Each slice from  this pork loin strip was quite thick but it was incredibly tender, moist and flavourful.  
You could really taste the curing, the smoking that had gone into this roasted meat.   
The fatty bits were meltingly, deadly delicious.  It had none of that burnt, dried out taste which you sometimes get from inferior char siew


We also ordered a clay pot of eggplant, minced pork and salted fish.  The eggplant was smooth-salty from the dried fish and the minced pork added that  umami kick.  It was slightly oily but we 
shared a small cup of rice to counter that (although I'm sure I had more rice than Beba did).


As penance for enjoying the sinfully good char siew , we had a pile of 
kong xing tsai, lightly sautéed with garlic.  
What a perfect trinity of flavours ... tender,  smoky char siew
salty-sharp eggplant and fresh and light greens.  
It was a terrific and tasty dinner to end my short Hong Kong getaway. 


Old Favorite with a New Look -- Ho Hung Kee at Hysan Place (My Week-end in Hong Kong Part 3)

Depending on how you like your good old Cantonese slash Guangdong food, 
you may be like me -- the best restaurants are not usually the prettiest or the newest or the fanciest.  My go-to Cantonese restaurants in Hong Kong are all old, small -- some are quite seedy looking but  they each have a very loyal clientele that appreciates good taste ... in food more than in ambience.


Ho Hung Kee (Mr. Ho's Shop. "Kee" stands for shop, which is why it seems that almost every other chinese restaurant in Hong Kong has "Kee" in its name) has been around for over 60 years and has received accolades, both from diners and lately, even a star from the Michelin Guide. A Michelin star, particularly for a local dim sum restaurant always adds to the already long queues snaking out the door.  


Ho Hung Kee now has a branch  on the 12th floor of upscale mall Hysan Place so my friends and I were able to go and try it out without having to worry about the long wait.  To ensure we had a table for our party of 5, we went for an early dinner at 6:30 p.m.  There was hardly any one around.


The cool blue interiors, the fancy lanterns,  crystal accents and the classic blue and white pottery looked completely at home in the mall.  While it was my first time to eat in Ho Hung Kee, 
my foodie friend who is very much at home in Hong Kong, and who was with us for dinner had recommended it on the strength of its reviews.   
I did wonder if all these froufrou accoutrements would add to or distract  from the food experience.  


Since there were five of us, we were able to order quite a number of things from the menu.  The Fried Sauce Noodle was sweetish  spicy and had generous amounts of tender slices of pork.  Each forkful of noodle blended with the sauce and a bit of pork was a tasty treat.  It was quite a big serving too -- perfectly proportioned for sharing!


 These  Baked Barbecue Pork Buns were delightful little bites of goodness. The pastry was not so oily.   The char siew filling was tender, not overwhelmed by the sauce and certainly not too minced -- you could taste the small savoury bits of barbecued pork.   Each order came with three pieces and since we were 5,  there was a lot of hemming and hawing as to who would get the last order.  
Ahem, it was not me.


We also ordered a yuba skin dim sum which I wasn't able to taste as I was concentrating on the above mentioned Barbecued Pork bun.  Always go for the meaningful calories, that's my motto!


Ho Hung Kee has built its reputation (and its 1-star Michelin rating) on their Shrimp Wonton Noodles. So of course, we ordered two bowls.  What a disappointment! 
The serving was small.  The shrimp wontons were puny and quite bland.  
The noodles had that slight alkaline taste which always puts me off.  
The shrimp wonton noodles at Tsim Chai Kee are head and shoulders above Ho Hung Kee's.  
My tastebuds and I cannot understand how they can claim that this is their signature dish.  


My friend ordered this Curry Prawns and we all agreed that it was a terrific choice.  The prawns were big and succulent  and the curry sauce was just sublime!  Tiny-beads-of-sweat inducing hot but you could taste the richness and goodness of the spices.  Please don't judge this by its messy appearance, I took this photo after we had all taken a spoonful from the bowl.  And we all had the same thought afterwards  -- we wished we had a bowl of rice to sop up the curry sauce with!


Cheung fan is one of my dim sum favourites.  We ordered this large portion of assorted rice rolls.  They arrived with the sauce placed thoughtfully on the side.  I thought each silken savoury bite needed no sauce at all.  It was easily my favourite dish in Ho Hung Kee, in its fancy-fied, prettified incarnation in Hysan Place.

Friday, June 20, 2014

A Raunchy Roast at Fu Kee in Sham Tseng (My Hong Kong Week end Part 2)

The raunchy comes from the name, as only Filipinos can get (with a wink and a smile).  Michael and I headed for this famous restaurant right after our 14 kilometre hike.  The roast  refers to the roast goose which Sham Tseng is famous (notorious?) for and where Fu Kee is a well known institution.



We walked along the main road of Sham Tseng where a whole row of 
roast goose restaurants lie in wait.


I don't read Cantonese but Michael said this was the place.  Fu Kee seems to be one of the bigger roast goose establishments as its frontage is much wider than the others.  


It's actually made up of three dining areas.  There is an area where the tables have tablecloths (a bit pricier) and an area where there are no tablecloths but the round tables are set for bigger groups.


We sat in the area where there were no tablecloths and where the tables were for solo diners or at the most, groups of four.  Father inside,  you could choose to sit in air-conditioned splendour but we opted for the "outdoor" seating where the smell of roasting meats wafted through the air.



The long hike had left us both hungry but one fourth order of roast goose and one cup of rice that we ordered was more than enough for both of us.  That and a tall bottle of Skol beer.  Perhaps slick, oily, rich fatty goose is not exactly what the body craves for after a tiring walk.


 This is perhaps the best roast goose that I have ever had.  It came to the table slight warm, as if it had just come out of the oven.  The skin was crisp and crackling. But each decadently delicious bite 
made me feel like I was closer to meeting my Maker -- how many grams of fat and cholesterol did I ingest?  It was a plump and juicy goose, swimming in its own umami rich juices.  
I must confess though, I only ate a few pieces -- I didn't want to negate all the healthy benefits of the hike we had just finished.  

Man Man Haang with Hansen's Hikes -- A "Slow Slow Walk" through Tai Lam Country Park to Sham Tseng (My Hong Kong weekend Part 1)


I've traded in my shopping bag and credit card for a pair of hiking shoes and a backpack!
Last year, on a quick visit to Hong Kong, I wanted to do something out of the usual.  Thus, I discovered the happiness of hiking through a company called Hansen's Hikes.  I did a short portion of the Hong Kong trail, from the Peak to the reservoir and on another visit,  I  did an urban hike through markets and public housing.  This last week,  for the Independence day long week-end, I found myself back in Hong Kong and booked another hike with Michael Hansen.



Michael and I had agreed to meet up at the MTR exit of Tsuen Wan west.  For this hike, I had requested for a relatively easy, "stepless"  walk.  I had quite a harrowing time navigating the steep and uneven steps of the Peak last year and frequently felt like I was about to hurtle myself off the cliff.  With that request in mind, Michael said that he had just the type of hike for me -- somewhere in the western New Territories.


From the MTR exit, we walked to the bus stop to catch our ride.  


It was a twenty minutes bus ride, along a winding mountain road, in the shadow of Hong Kong's tallest peak, Tai Mo Shan. We got off at the entrance of  Tai Lam Country Park,  Hong Kong's second largest country park and a favourite of hikers and bikers alike.


This map at the entrance shows our route.  See that yellow mark that says "start" on the upper right hand of the map?   Well, that was where we were.  
We would be walking through the red dots, all the way down to the green dots 
where it says, not prophetically, I hope "end".   Could I?  
It was 14 kilometres after all and I hadn't walked that far in one go, not in the longest time.



The hike would be through Tai Lam's paved, gently sloping roads.  As we entered the park, I could see the hills up ahead and mentally braced myself for the uphill walk that I knew would be forthcoming.


Aside from hikers,  mountain bikers are also allowed in the park.  The only motorised vehicles that have access are official park management and maintenance vehicles.  A few did pass us by that day but there was ample horn tooting so I never felt unsafe at any point.


There are nature trails, forest trails, tree trails all within Tai Lam that take you off the pavement and on to more challenging paths.  These are well marked and head off into different directions.  But for now, we were staying on the pavement.


Walking up and up through paved roads is not any easier than walking on unpaved trails.
As a tip, Michael told me to walk on the outside,  where it will take a bit longer but where the gradient is a little less steep.  


It was a cloudy and muggy day.  Along the way, we came upon this look out point which gave a gorgeous view of the New Territories.  Hong Kong has been able to conserve and maintain her forest cover which was certainly evident in the lushness of the greenery inside Tai Lam park.


We're 160 meters up! 


 As you can see from the road behind us,  here we're on a slight descent, 
which means I had the energy to stop and take this photo.


 My breathing had just returned to normal when the road ahead curved uphill once again.  
Thankfully, the air also became cooler and less humid.


As we walked along -- Michael thoughtfully slowing his pace to match mine -- I took every possible distraction to stop and catch my breath.  Oh look!  A black wooly creepy crawly!  Must take a photo of that... stop, point, shoot.  A 15 second break to take a deep breath before starting the uphill climb once again.


From 160 meters, we climbed some more to 163 meters.  It may not not seem like a lot but a continuous steady uphill walk is really not a walk in the park  -- particularly for a desk bound couch potato like me.  This trail marker also shows that we were now walking through segment 9 of the Maclehose Trail, a famous 100 km hiking trail in Hong Kong.


The road continued to curve and climb.  How many more hills, Michael?  But while you're probably thinking that I may have bitten off more than I could chew -- I was actually having a wonderful time, laboured breathing and all. There is nothing better than being outdoors, doing something you normally don't do.


I nearly stepped on this bright neon green bug, slowly making its way across the road.  Should we lift it up and bring it to the other side?  But which side did he start from? 


165 meters up and still climbing!


There was a lot to look at along the way -- views from the tree tops and views down below.  I heard this before I saw it -- a gurgling noisy stream splashing to the rocks below.  


It's always fun to walk with such a knowledgeable and patient guide like Michael Hansen who kept up such an entertaining and informative patter.  I didn't even realise we had walked halfway until he stopped and showed me this map.  It had been less than 2 hours since we started and despite the many pauses for photos and deep breaths, it seemed like we were making pretty good time.


Michael had promised me a very interesting rest stop -- one which he said was not very well known, even among the locals.  Soon enough, we came to this signpost for the village of Tsing Fai Tong.  
The rest stop would be at Parents Farm, a unique and quaint spot within Tai Lam Park.


The walk to Parents Farm took all of 5 minutes along a paved road, wide enough for just one small car to go through.  Michael said that this was the only remaining piece of private land within the park and the owners had been given permission to drive their car all the way inside to their property.


It was a complete surprise to come upon this sight within the forest of Tai Lam!  A white house with an outdoor "cafe" set up right outside.  A dog was definitely not guarding the premises as he barely gave us a second glance.


On the gate there is a semblance of a menu  -- beer, soda, water, tea and juices are for sale.  
If you're hungry, the kind and smiling Indonesian helper will gladly whip up a bowl of egg noodles with Spam.  The owner of the property is an eighty something year old man, who was sitting there enjoying the breeze and the welcome distraction of wandering hikers like Michael and I.


Michael went inside to get our beer while I just stood there and marvelled at this hidden paradise.  There is a lotus filled pond, fruit trees and vegetable gardens and more benches and tables where one can sit and relax with a drink or two.


We shared two large bottles of very cold Tsing Tao beer.  I dug out the pack of salted almonds I had brought in my backpack and they were the perfect salty crunchy snack.  It was amazing to just sit and relax -- looking out over the lotus flowers on the pond and enjoying the mild breeze.  There were no sounds other than birdsong and cicadas.  I could have stayed here the whole day!  
Maybe even taken a short nap.


The old man who owns this place could not bear to leave this village in the late 1960s, when the government bought out all the other villagers, moving them to flats in the city.  He asked that he be allowed to keep his land and his house and the government agreed.  He has lived here since that time although his children have all moved to the city.  They come to visit and help with farm and gardening chores on a regular basis.  
The day we visited, one of his sons was there, doing work in the garden. 


Michael showed me this laminated photo showing what the village looked like in 1953 when this was still Tsing Fai Tong Village.  Now, only the old man's house is all that's left.


In addition to the fruit trees and rice field of Parents Farm, there are vegetables and herbs that are grown.  During harvest time, if there is too much for the family to consume, some of the produce is sold to interested visitors.




I wanted to take a photo with the owner but was too shy to ask.  
He sat in a little terrace right outside the kitchen, and had a friendly nod and smile for us, particularly 
for Michael who has been here many times.


It was hard to tear myself away from this surprising patch of peace and serenity.  But we still had a few kilometres to go and lunch was waiting.  On the way out, I paused and splashed some cold spring water on my face -- instantly refreshing and reviving!  I was ready to go walking again.


Sham Tseng -- 2 kilometers and 45 minutes away.  I'm happy to say, that yes, 
we did make it to Sham Tseng within that time.




I could see that the hike would soon come to an end.  From this viewpoint, Michael pointed out the Tsing Ma bridge which connects Lantau Island and the airport with the rest of Hong Kong island.


And here I came face to face with my nemesis -- steps!  Although these were more evenly and regularly spaced than the ones along the Hong Kong trail, they were steps nonetheless.  We climbed down over 350 steps and I was gritting my teeth throughout the whole time.  See the huge towering flats of Sham Tseng in the horizon?  That was our final goal for the day.


This lizard was having a better time than I was -- he was on his way back while I still had to go down more and more steps.


Sadly, the trees and greenery of Tai Lam Park soon gave way to Sham Tseng's  
iron roofs and concrete walls.  


And these are the final winding steps ending our  hike.  From the bottom, we navigated our way through narrow alleys, past  back yards, back doors and laundry areas.


We made our way, slightly uphill once again, through the village of Sham Tseng.  
Don't let the "village" term mislead you, this is as much about concrete and high rise buildings as any modern area in Hong Kong.  This back alley cuts across the roast goose restaurants -- something people still go all the way to Sham Tseng for.


Sham Tseng has long been famous for its roast goose and Michael had promised that as a reward after a particularly long and challenging - for me, that is -- hike.  
We had hiked 14 kilometres from Tai Lam Park to Sham Tseng and I had made it!  
We started at 9:30 in the morning and ended at 1:30 in the afternoon. 
Not counting the 30 minute beer stop at Parents Farm, we did our hike in about 3.5 hours.
I was ecstatic!
 For me, this was a huge accomplishment.  
It may have been man man haang or slow slow walk but I finished it and was very proud of myself.
Now where is that roast goose?