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!

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.