Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Midnight Snack from Causeway Bay -- Street Stall Curry Fishballs

If midnight snacks are your thing, the streets of Causeway Bay are rife with possibilities.  There are many small restaurants that are open till way past midnight.  My favourite along Jardine's Bazaar road,  Shanghai Hong Kong Noodle purveyor of rice rolls par excellence, is open 24 hours.

If street food is your thing, stalls and vendors abound selling all sorts of tempting munchies.  I was on my way back to the hotel from a midnight shopping spree when this hole in the wall caught my eye.

Fishballs in hot, spicy curry sauce are a snack staple and something that I can not pass up.  I ordered a portion plus a stick of lobster balls, to take back to the hotel.  

 Somehow my small container of spicy fishballs and a rice roll did not look too out of place on top of J Plus Hotel's elegant dining table.  The fishballs were cooked just right, retaining their chewy, springy texture.  The hot curry sauce was perfect -- sinus-opening spicy and with just a bit of sweetness.  It was so addictive, I am embarrassed to say that I sopped up the remaining sauce with my rice roll.

What a messy, dripping, finger-licking-good, gratifying midnight snack.  My cravings for Hong Kong street food fulfilled, I felt like an impostor, lying on J Plus Hotel's soft, cool sheets. . . dreaming of fishballs in spicy curry sauce.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Izumi Curry in Hysan Place, Hong Kong -- Dinner Curry Fix at the Food Court

Food courts may not be the best places to find a meal good enough to write about but all the restaurants on Hysan Place's 12th floor had long queues at dinner time.  Instead of waiting, we took the escalator down to the Food Court on the 11th floor.  All of the tables were full too but Izumi Curry, occupying a corner near the back, surprisingly was not full.  

It's hard to go wrong with Japanese curry. Even the packaged, ready-to-heat-and-eat kinds are very edible.  Izumi Curry is a brand from Osaka so I was quite sure we wouldn't be disappointed.

Curry is the star of the menu with many kinds to choose from -- beef, beef tongue, pork cutlets, omelet with curry, hamburger curry and even a mega hamburger version that promised a Godzilla sized patty.  There are also curry udon noodles.  There are salads for light eaters and side dishes like fried chicken or karaage

 Jay ordered a normal sized hamburger curry although I was egging him to try the Mega sized version.  He pronounced it authentic and quite delicious.  I tried the curry sauce with some rice and indeed, it  was a good blend of spicy and sweet curry flavours.  Very typical Japanese curry.
The consistency was also smooth -- neither too thin nor  lumpy.  Little bits of herbs added piquancy to the taste.

I wanted to drink more than eat and rice doused with curry sauce seemed too heavy for dinner. Instead I ordered a small pork cutlet that came with a side of greens tossed with a sesame miso dressing.  The pork cutlet was rosu or pork loin  and therefore had quite a bit of juicy, unhealthy fat at the ends.  But it was tender and well seasoned although a bit oilier than what you get in Japan.
All in all, it was a quick, delicious dinner at Izumi Curry -- a taste of Osaka in a corner of a Hong Kong food court.

Chef Wong's Dim Sum Dining in Sham Shui Po - tasty discovery of take out treats

We had just polished off two plates of porky deliciousness and were on our way back to the MTR station when I spotted this colourful restaurant generically called .... Dim Sum Dining.

It was on Pei Ho street, near the entrance to the MTR and there was just so much clutter ... lots of photos of food, clippings of magazine and newspaper reviews,  all sorts of kitschy decor ... pumpkins on the roof, machang or lotus leaf wrapped rice hanging in bundles, a toaster oven that was sending off interesting aromas .... I just had to stop.

After I had bought some of the baked pies in the toaster oven,  a whole crowd suddenly appeared seemingly from nowhere.  It seems this little place is quite popular.  When I checked on openrice.com, I learned that the owner of Dim Sum Dining is Chef Wong, who used to be the executive chef of Maxim's - one of the largest restaurant and catering companies in Hong Kong.  He probably finally decided that he would do much better if he opened his own place.

I took home two pieces of the pan fried duck bun and one order of the char siew steamed bun or siopao.  The pan fried duck buns were golden brown on top and on the bottom.  They were heavy, compressed little discs and were still warm when we got to the hotel.

Even if I was still reeling from the lunch at Guangdong, I knew these little baked buns wouldn't taste good if I didn't have them while they were still warm.  I broke one in half and it was full of duck meat, mixed with chopped vegetables in a chinese spice flavoured dark caramelised sauce.
It may not have been the thing to end a heavy lunch with but it was a wonderful find.
Next time, I know enough to go back to Dim Sum Dining to unearth more of what dim sum delights it offers.

Guangdong Barbecue in Sham Shui Po -- finding an old friend in a new place

My family used to go to Hong Kong a few times each year, all the way from the 1990s up to 2006.   Because we were there so often, we developed strong loyalties to certain stores -- and we were always devastated when one by one, they closed shop.  One of our our long time favourites is Guangdong Barbecue which used to be along Hankow Road in Tsim Sha Tsui.  It was a lunch and dinner habit.  Imagine my disappointment when I found that the branch in Hankow Road 
had closed.  Thankfully, I remembered that the restaurant is part of a chain so I knew I'd find it somewhere else.

Inadvertently, we lucked into spotting a branch along Yu Chau street in Sham Shui Po.  We were wandering around the area, looking at the many street markets when the golden letters on the signboard floated into view.  Just in time for lunch, too!
This branch was definitely bigger, had better tables and chairs  and seemed cleaner than the one we frequented in Tsim Sha Tsui although the floors were just as greasy as ever.  The air oozed with the ambrosial aromas of roasting meats.  We were in high hog heaven!

Jay wanted his favourite roast pork -- the chinese version of lechon kawali.  I wanted the crispy skin roast pig.  So we had a plate of each.  These two plates of porky preciousness seemed like a good sized 1/4 kilo order for each.

To round up our cholesterol pig out, we had a platter of that chinese restaurant classic -- whether you are in Binondo or Beijing ... yang chow fried rice.  Guangdong's version had dried scallop bits which made for a salty, palate pleasing flavour.
It was a soul-satisfying lunch and we did ourselves proud, wiping out everything on the plates, yes even the broccoli.
We walked out of there stuffed and smiling... happy to have reunited with an old friend.

Tsim Chai Kee in Central, Hong Kong Two Topping Noodles for Double the Taste

It was a rainy afternoon when Jay and I arrived in Hong Kong -- he from Manila and me from my meeting in Kuala Lumpur.  We hurriedly dropped our bags in our room at J Plus Hotel in Causeway Bay before we headed out for a late lunch.

Typhoon Glenda or Rammasun had just left Manila and was now whistling through China.  For such a wet day, the perfect mid afternoon meal seemed to be a bowl of hot noodle soup.  
From Causeway bay, we took the MTR to Central,  walked through blustery winds from the IFC Mall clear across to Wellington Street where Tsim Chai Kee lay in wait.

I had tried this popular wonton noodle shop last year as it was the first stop on the HK Foodie Tour.
I promised Jay he would be in for treat.  On this visit, I decided to try the two toppings noodle bowl, choosing the shrimp wontons and the handmade fish balls.  I wasn't quite prepared for how humongous the finely minced fish balls were.  For just HK$31, my bowl had 2 fish balls and three shrimp wontons.  Plus extra soup as the kind lady waiting on us kept refilling our bowls.

This is why I so love Tsim Chai Kee -- their shrimp wontons have whole large, fat fresh shrimp inside, not the skimpy, skinny  cut up pieces you usually find in other (more expensive) places.  I also think their broth is smooth and seasoned just right.

After our noodle fix, time to head back up to Wellington Street, fortified with soup and dumplings.  The rain had stopped and the air had cooled a bit -- perfect for a first afternoon back in my second favourite city in the world!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Ramadan Buffet at Restoran Rebung in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur -- and a heartwarming encounter with Celebrity Chef Ismail Ahmad

Ramadan was on when I was in Kuala Lumpur a week ago.  I had read about the Ramadan bazaars located all over the city where cooked food could be bought to eat at the breaking of the fast and had put these on top of my to-see list. 
But my friend and colleague Omar told me that no one really ate at the Ramadan bazaars, they just bought food from there to take home.  
Omar promised he would bring me to a better option ... we would break the fast (not me, but he would as he was fasting) at a Ramadan Buffet.
Apparently during Ramadan, restaurants offer buffets where people  get together to enjoy and feast and break the fast -- starting exactly at 7:30 each night during Ramadan.

Omar and his lovely wife Sitti picked me up from the hotel and brought me clear across town to Bangsar, an upscale suburb a few kilometres out of Kuala Lumpur's city center. 

 After driving through rush hour traffic, we finally came to a stop in front of a sprawling bungalow -- with a lighted sign that said Restoran Rebung.  If I wanted a taste of local, authentic cuisine as I had assured Omar and Sitti that I did, they both felt this was the best place to go.

The entrance to the restaurant was festively lit and tables and chairs were set up right as you walked in.  The buzz of hungry, expectant diners all happy and eager to break the fast with family and friends literally hummed throughout the place.  

Because it is set up in a converted bungalow,  Rebung is designed to look and feel like a warm and comfortable home.  This is just one small section of the restaurant --  the air conditioned portion where our table was.  

The eating and feasting continues outside, in wide open halls and porches where more tables are set and where there was even a stage for live band music.  Dining at Rebung  felt just like being a guest in one huge, casual, friendly dinner party.

There are various stations set all around the restaurant.  This lady was making fresh roti on her iron skillet.  She could hardly keep up with the demand as diners would get a piece or two  as fast as she could make them.

Since my head was reeling from all the food that was laid out, I decided to start slow and get a small sampling of rojak, the traditional salad found all over Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.  
Restoran Rebung's rojak had cut fruits like pineapples, singkamas (jicama), macopa (rose apples), cucumbers plus fried tofu and even fishcakes. Topped with  crushed peanuts and a spicy sweet sauce,  it was such an appetite inducing first taste of what the buffet had to offer.  I had to control myself from getting a bigger second serving.  You can also see that I had one piece of the roti with an accompanying bowl of fiery curry.

Done with my appetiser, it was time to forage through the buffet once again.  This very popular station featured yet another version of roti, also freshly made while you waited ... and waited and waited.

Right beside the roti maker was this huge vat of a very enticing and aromatic stew called daging kulai kawah.  There are a lot of similar words between Malaysia and the Philippines and in this case, kawah in Malay translates exactly to  kawa in Tagalog which is a  large cooking vat.   This dish is rather soupy and is made with beef  with lots of onions, ginger, spices like cardamom, anise, cinnamon, coconut cream and a bit of tamarind and palm sugar .

It was full speed ahead at the buffet stations!  While dishes were quick to run out, there was always someone ready to run to the kitchen to replenish the supply.

I tried a lot of food I had never even seen or tasted.  These are salads that Omar assured me were very local and very delicious.

Like us, Malaysians like a lot of side dishes and sauces to add more zing to their food.  

Char kway teow!  Two kinds of this popular noodle dish were on hand.  

There were so many types of dishes on offer that I couldn't quite decide what I would spend my precious calories on -- I decided I'd go for a mix of new flavours and tried and tested favourites.

The dish on the far left is what the restaurant is named after. Rebung is actually Malay for bamboo shoots (labong in Tagalog).  This dish is made with turmeric, ginger, lemongrass and lots of chili.  The bamboo shoots or rebung were cut in big round pieces and had a slightly bitter but not unpleasant taste.

The beverage station at the buffet had different types of cold drinks -- fruit flavoured or made with sweet palm sugar with gelatine bits and sago balls.  There was also a couple of thermos containers of hot drinks like teh tarik or milky tea.

After my initial reconnaissance of the buffet stations, this is what my dinner plate looked like.  Fluffy nasi lemak or rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan, a couple of pieces of the rebung masak lemak,  small snails cooked in coconut cream that I happily slurped the tasty little bits from,  kari ayam or chicken curry,  battered vegetables and some krupuk or fish crackers.  Everything was distinctively delicious -- I couldn't choose a favourite dish if you asked me.

The beef rendang station was constantly running out of this quintessentially Malay beef stew.
I had to lie in wait by the rendang table so that I could make sure to get a portion.  The lady in charge of refilling the tray  said that they cooked their rendang for more than 8 hours so that all the meat turns fork tender,  literally falling apart in each flavourful meltingly good mouthful.
And so, my second  plate had quite a bit of beef rendang spooned over cubes of nasi impit or compressed steamed rice.  I had it with homemade peanut sauce on the side, more of the crazy good krupuk and a freshly made roti canai, liberally drenched with the daging gulai kawah.  A lone piece of shrimp also made it to my plate.
I cannot tell a lie -- I finished each and every morsel on this plate too.
I have always liked Malay food but this was the first time that every thing I had was all so divinely deliciously good.

I barely had room for dessert but Omar made me try this type of kuih.  Kuih are small, bite sized portions of dessert and this one was made of glutinous rice, rolled in grated coconut.  It looked like our pichi pichi and tasted like it too except that this kuih had a hidden nugget of palm sugar right in the centre -- which melted in your mouth as you bit into it.  It was delectable and I'm glad I made room for it in my betsubara (nihongo for second stomach).

At the cashier, they had copies of the owner, Chef Ismail's cookbook for sale.  I had met Chef Ismail earlier, when he so warmly welcomed us to our table and after trying his delightful, honest tasting food -- I knew he was more than just a celebrity chef, he was a true proponent and advocate of Malaysia's food culture and heritage.

I made sure I had an opportunity to have a photo taken with Chef Ismail.  True to his hospitable and generous nature, we found him seated at one of the tables in front, engaged in conversation with diners -- we were after all,  guests in his kitchen, his domain, his home.
I got my cookbook personally signed and he posed for this photo with me.
When I mentioned that I was flying back home the next day, he leaned over and whispered to me "I will say a prayer for your safe journey home".  What a kind and thoughtful soul.

I saw this cheeky sign just as we were about to leave Rebung.  I don't know how good a kisser Chef Ismail is but from the dinner that I just had, I know he is one amazing cook!

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!