Monday, December 24, 2007

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Bowled over

I was going to pen some original thoughts about a recent trip to Restoran LYJ in Sungai Buloh to have poon choy, a riot of foods cooked in one (huge) bowl, usually served during festive occasions. But I broke one of my cardinal rules of blogging – I googled the term before I started writing. And as expected, the torrent of information that flowed made my stillborn creative attempt small, old and superfluous.

However, all is not lost. Beaten BUT NOT broken, I present to you The Best of the Rest, a plagiari… I mean, aggregate hodge podge (much like the dish itself, actually) of what you will find when you type “poon choy” into Blackle.

But first, a picture, which at least I can claim authorship (Pictureship? Imageship? Okay, ownership) of…

What, then, is poon choi or poon choy? According to the Internet’s most reliable source of information (one that is constantly and only policed by experts in their fields who despite their busy workload spend their precious free time updating, without payment, public-access information for the benefit of mankind while being bombarded with requests to donate to that very same site), the dish is a layered kalaidescope of “pork, beef, lamb, chicken, duck, abalone, ginseng, shark’s fin, fish maw, prawn, crab, dried mushroom, fishballs, squid, dried eel, dried shrimp, pigskin, beancurd and Chinese radish”, served in one gigantouraus basin or bowl.

[You know how those Buffet Buffoons scurry around and cut queue so that they can pile their plates high with all the best stuff on view, then stagger back to their seats while performing a world-class balancing act? Well, this is like someone’s done the scurrying, stacking and carrying for them!]

It seems the dish came about when the Cantonese served it to the retreating Song Emperor, who was then fleeing the Mongol expansion. Putting all the goodies together could have been a form of tribute, or maybe they just ran out of plates [J and J, take note: this last reference comes from a New York Chinatown restaurant blurb – look for the A&B Lobster King House on the page]. Or it could have been that the wily pro-democracy southerners were sending a subtle message to their northern overlord, forcing him to experience eating cheek by jowl with his underlings from one bowl.

A blogger, who I take at face value is a Babe and lives in the city with her boiboi, gives a detailed description of the make-up of this restaurant’s version. But if you're the type that learns best visually (or you're just plain lazy to read more text), here's another view of the dish, taken from another angle, which gives you a different picture because it is truly huge!

Now, logic tells us that it would be impossible for all the stuff in the poon choy to be uniformly excellent. Every dish is unique and needs careful and different preparation from other types of food for it to sing when it touches our palates. And so it was with this poon choy – most of the components were good, as befitting the excellent kitchen – but not all hit a home run.

But as legitimate as this observation was (by the fastidious J), I felt the point of this dish was more social than gastronomic. You need to bring together 14 other people you enjoy being with, so that tucking into this Feast In A Bowl becomes an uproarious special occasion. Eating poon choy is a shared culinary adventure as a whole table picks through a communal basin, the wonderment of discovery heightened by a generous amount of beer or wine. There was a lot of “Oooh, look, I found this,” and “Here, you on the other side of the continent, you gotta have that” going on that night.

Of course, the food itself has to be good to make the merriment worthwhile – and it was. We know, since we ordered a roast suckling pig and a braised claypot fish off their a la carte menu as well!!


Yeah , yeah, there wasn’t enough food already, huh? We were as happy as stuffed little emperors that night. Anyway, we’ll be back there next weekend, to feast on their other wonderful non-poon choy stuff.

I should leave the final word to Miss Babe, who helpfully gives the address of the restaurant, on a napkin!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Silence, and then it begins again…

In this dog eat dog world of a zillion voices and opinions struggling to be heard and to be different online, one quickly becomes irrelevant unless one adheres to the three cardinal rules of blogging – update, update and update. Every day, at the very least, or, if you fancy yourself as citizen journalist, every hour or with every new development in a big story.

So, my 20 days of silence has been an eternity. But, you know, I haven’t been lying on the beach, sun tan lotion on my side, Corona in hand, admiring the sunset.

Life trotted along and things (though rarely, thankfully, shit) happened – some of them personally significant, others of social, political and national interest that touched me in unexpected ways.

Two developments have been gobbling up the hours and minutes of the day – getting into the groove work-wise, and making a concerted effort to get some exercise into my life by joining a gym and embarking on a programme. The second new thing required an initial boost to get over procrastination (one needs to just do it and stop making %&*&%$^ excuses), but the payback has been almost immediate – better energy levels, better sleeping patterns.

Getting into a work groove was as much a relief as it was necessary, since in the months before, I have alternated between being distracted (family, travelling, friends, this and that stuff) and depressed (not getting significant work done).

But now, it’s all good, it’s all chillin’.

First up (or down, since you have to read below), is the Bearded Warrior of Kelantan, and below that, getting crabby and Lucky.

Is there such a thing as an objective past?

Today, for benefit of its readers who might want to stretch their legs a little, The Star, featured the historic Tok Janggut Trail in Kelantan, a state in northeastern peninsula Malaysia. Tok Janggut (which the writer of the article translates as ‘The Bearded One’, although One seems a pale version of Tok, an honorific accorded to those of who are particularly wise and respected, and who are no longer young punk warriors) was a local warlord who led a rebellion against the British colonizers around the turn of the 20th century.

The meaning and significance of his act is shrouded is some controversy, as the title of the book written by an expert (who is quoted in the article) shows: Tok Janggut: Revolutionary or Traitor?

A monument to
remember Tok Janggut by.
(Picture copyright: The Star.)

But what struck me about the article was the way in which history is again being spun in the service of the present. Here’s how the writer, reflecting the State-determined standard accounts of history of today, puts it:

“Arguably the first person to revolt against the British in the Malay Peninsula back in the early 1900s, Tok Janggut did in a way anticipate Aug 31, 1957.”

But a close inspection of the details suggests that linking together Tok Janggut’s rebellion to Malaysia’s independence from Britain requires some suspension of critical thinking.

Tok Janggut’s beef was as much against the British as it was against the Sultan of the day, and rested on local issues like taxes and local autonomy. His rebellion could be seen as part of a long tradition of maintaining a balance of power between the ruler and the local lords. The ruler, rarely all-powerful unless he was especially charismatic, won the support of local chiefs by promising them titles and legitimacy, while extracting taxes (in goods and manpower) from them. Levy too high a tax, and the chiefs revolted.

So the jury is still out on whether he is a modern anti-colonialist hero, or a local warlord seeking to exploit a weak Sultan.

Also, the Malaysian (or more accurately, Malayan) parties involved in the negotiation for independence, hardly resembled the violent and radical Tok Janggut. The British identified and chose to negotiate with a group of conservative elites (quite a few of them who had studied in England), and who were amenable to the Queen’s interest after the Union Jack had been lowered.

Ah, the devil is in the details…

Lucky, lucky me

One of my supervisors emailed me recently asking for the address of this blog – he said he had heard I was writing about food. This is the person who once packed a ton of rendang from Sumatra to take along with him on his 9,000-mile journey home (and we got to taste it at a party he threw!!). The point of this aside is that while this is not strictly a food blog, I’m beginning to feel the pressure to deliver!

Lucky me, I am eating well, both at home (Mum’s cooking!) and outside. One of our favourite joints is this unassuming steamboat (alternatively known as hot pot in certain parts of the world) restaurant in a corner shoplot not far from home.

They have sets, depending on the number of diners, that include fish, prawns, meats of all sorts, vegetables, tofu, stuffed tofu, beef balls, fish balls, eggs, noodles etc. We normally add to their sets or order off their non-steamboat menu.

Steamboats are simple dishes, really – the success depends almost entirely on the quality of the ingredients since all of them are boiled lightly, and not subjected to heavy cooking. Luck Kee Steamboat takes pains to ensure all the ingredients – especially the seafood – are fresh and of a better grade. Here’s a close-up of the pot just as the lid is being taken away…

The above pictures are from 2006. Just recently, we went back to have their non-steamboat food. We’ve always ordered their crabs as a side dish (yeah, right, crabs as a ‘side dish’). This time we decided to go the whole hog [actually, you can order braised pig’s trotters (chee keok) from a nearby stall (bak kut teh) too].

We started out with a plate of khau yoke mai funbee hoon/bihun (vermicelli) stir fried with strips of braised pork belly; a dish with deep flavours that one can appreciate with just a few mouthfuls. You might think it strange that the noodle dish appears first, since noodle and rice dishes appear at the end of fine Chinese banquets. But when you’re having a crab meal, the crabs are usually served last, during which all conversation stops and everyone is all hands on deck, literally.

Next came the yim kook har, or salt encrusted/baked prawns. (I am getting terribly hungry as I write this, sigh!). Deep-fried to the right level of crispiness, you can throw the whole thing into your month, chomp on it, and swallow everything – head, eyes, legs, tail, meat, stock and barrel. (You’ll need a fairly big mouth of course, or a way to unhinge your jaws.)

A plate of vegetables also arrived at this point, but I felt sure my salt-encrusted fingers should not be touching the camera.

Then came our chilli crab. We held our breath. I said a silent prayer for the folks in the San Francisco Bay Area – the side of a tanker had scraped against the Bay Bridge, and oil spilled out of a huge gash, sparking an environmental crisis that led to the restriction of the Dungeness crab season, much to the dismay of the locals there.

And then we tucked in! As expected, all conversation stopped, until the arrival first of the mantou (bread) to soak up the chilli crab sauce, and then the piece the resistance…

… our steamed flower crabs (fa hai). Flower crabs are soft-shelled crabs that have a more delicate flavour, which makes them less suitable for the robust treatment handed out to their bigger and meatier cousins (stir-fried either with chilli; peppercorns; curry leaves, ginger and spring onion; and so on). Instead, flower crabs are best steamed, on a bed of egg white whipped with Chinese wine, and sprinkled with some fresh spring onions.

Man, was that a feast!

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Chemor is still relevant today

Okay, so I have a soft spot for old towns and places with a bit of history. They're a window not just into some sepia tinted era that has little relevance to today, but they show us how the people who came before us lived their lives even as they built for the future – that it, built the world we live in now.

We are inextricably linked to the past, individually and collectively; linked even to those who are not family, who lived in places far away, in unfamiliar circumstances. That's why the feature in today's Sunday Star on Chemor, caught my eye. This is a story not just of a town living in some time warp, but a glimpse into the very real and concrete lives of the men, women, teachers, labourers, students, town officials and others in this small Perak town.

The grand Chemor Theatre
The grand Chemor Theatre once staged
Chinese opera and Malay bangsawan shows,
explains Law Siak Hong of the Perak Heritage
Society. – Caption and picture copyright
from The Sunday Star newspaper.

The accompanying story is on the Mandailings, who fled from Sumatra in the 19th century and made their home in Chemor (and other parts of Perak, too). The Mandailings have striven to preserve their cultural identity and uniqueness, an effort that has sometimes at odds with the official project to construct monolithic "Malay" identity/ethnicity.

The political parties in Malaysia, both governing and in the opposition, are formally, or effectively mono-ethnic (the latter may claim to offer a multi-ethnic platform, but their support is often derived largey from one ethnic community), and thus it serves their purposes to perpetuate the idea that "Malay", "Chinese", "Indian" are large homogeneous groups that march to one ethnic agenda and spring from one particular cultural heritage.

This is patently not true, as the Chemor/Mandailing articles and the Johan Jaafar lament that I talked about in my previous post shows (Johan recounts how the Javanese were seen as a very distinct and different ethnic group in his village).

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Of muhibah, kampungs and the slow travelling movement

I don't normally do news round-ups - see Jeff Ooi for that - but a few things caught my eye today.

The first is Johan Jaaffar's lament on "Those long-gone days of muhibah in the kampung" in today's New Straits Times. Johan's point is not new: In the past, during more innocent times, before and just after Malaysia gained her independence in 1957, it was not unusual for families of various ethnicities to not only live cheek-by-jowl with each other, but have genuine interactions and friendship. This pining for the good old days is particularly prevalent among Malaysians of a certain vintage as well as politicians out to mask their tendency to fan ethnic chauvinism with empty rhetoric of multi-cultural harmony, or muhibah.

I highlight Johan's lament because my friend John is right now undertaking a ride across the country in search of that muhibah spirit, and is at this very moment, passing through Muar, the setting for Johan's commentary. What was remarkable about Johan's picture of an idyllic kampung was that "in 1948, the area surrounding my village was the scene of the worse racial turmoil the country had ever known."

Meanwhile, two Morrocan scouts are walking through Asia to promote "love, peace and tolerance", and has arrived in Malaysia. What is it about people taking the slow road to spread positive messages? Is it because the physically draining act of walking and cycling humbles a person and makes him or her more sensitive or self-aware? Is it that the slower pace allows one to truly appreciate the worth of every single human being one encounters? Or is one just too darned tired to argue?

Riding is of course an environmentally-friendly, low-impact way of playing tourist, as this feature on Pulau Ketam bike tours attests. My recent post on the charming island failed to include some of the nitty-gritty travel details that good, responsible bloggers are supposed to have provide. Oh well, *shrug*.

But I did have a pix of pepper crabs! :)

P.S. If any of the links to the articles become broken, leave a comment and I'll fix it!

Thursday, October 18, 2007


In an earlier post, I had commented on the irony of serving char kuay teow for a charity event raising funds for survivors of stroke (as well as our ex-Prime Minister asking for equally sinful Malaysian street food after his heart operation).

You see, the ingredient that makes char kuay teow sinfully delicious is, well, lard! But isn't this such an innocuous ingredient? It's just so white, and pristine! So harmless looking.

All you have to do is to just cut a big piece into cute little tiny cubes...

... and have them simmer in a wok over a gentle fire.

And before you can say "angioplasty, pshaw!", they've turned into lil' golden brown snacks, leaving behind the liquid that adds that indescribable extra to char kuay teow and countless other favourites. How bad can they be? ;)

Fortunately, in this health conscious age, more and more cooks are consigning this naughty booster to the realm of memory ("Oh, food tasted so different in my time"), although it is threatening to make a comeback.

Still, its widespread absence has enabled even survivors of strokes to have a plate of char kuay teow now and again without their nutritionist having a heart attack.

Monday, October 15, 2007

And he's off!

Updated version: I had blogged earlier about my friend John who planned to ride from the southernmost to the northernmost part of peninsula Malaysia in a journey to uncover his place in his nation and his nation in him. Well, he left this afternoon and you can follow his progress in his own blog.

The southernmost tip of Malaysia is Tanjung Piai, a National Park that has visitor friendly boardwalks criss-crossing parts of the 526 hectares of coastal mangrove swamps and canals.

A Ramsar certified site, Tanjung Piai is also the southernmost tip of the Asian continental land mass.

We headed out to Tanjung Piai at mid-morning and reached there just before noon. John, Mei and I decided to play tourists for a while and we walked along the boardwalk marveling at the swamp and the rich animal and plant life it sustained.

We finally reached the southernmost point, a stark, soulless jetty with concrete floor, bizarre sayings nailed onto the railings, and ...

... a globe that looks like it has seen better days in a 3rd rate amusement park. John, though, seemed transfixed by it, perhaps plotting his next trip?

After a lacklustre lunch in Kukup at a seafood restaurant designed to relieve unsuspecting Singaporeans of their dollars, we headed back to Tanjung Piai for the real business of the day... The Journey.

First off, getting the gear out of the car. "Hmmm, I seemed to be missing something?"

After much moving things about...

... out comes the frame and the bags.

Take out the second wheel...

... and make sure there is enough air in it...

... before securing it to the frame.

Tyre pressure check for the back wheel.

And make sure all the bags are secured properly.

Now it's time to put on the right gear, starting with shoes.

Load the bags at the back...

... making sure they are balanced.

Put on the funny little thingamajig they call a bicycle helmet...

... and some mean gloves....

before taking a swig of holy water, blessed by the patron saint of cyclists, St. Wheely.

Give the ol' gal a good, long hug. Notice how I cleverly focused on the background, rendering the tender moment in soft focus, something I totally intended to do when releasing the shutter of my idiot-proof camera.

Then it's time to climb on board, test the gadgets and go for a quick spin.

All set, the man flashes his trademark cheeky grin...

... and he's off. Good luck, John. Be safe.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Char Kuay Teow for stroke charity!!!

Last month, on September 9 to be exact, some family and friends got together to man a stall at a fundraising carnival for the National Stroke Association of Malaysia (Nasam). For the past few years now, the team has put together a food stall selling mainly char kuay teow (fried kuay teow noodles, for you non-Malaysians out there). The stall is almost always a hit – the aroma of one of Malaysia's favourite street foods being fried fresh to order draws a long queue.

This year, apart from char kuay teow, the team decided to add pasta to the menu. The two woks used for frying and the pots used for cooking the spaghetti and keeping the sauce warm, were all laid out in a line, oodles of noodles being conjured up under the tropical sun. (To help move the pasta, we recruited an American lady, from Wisconsin, to cajole passers-by. No, it wasn't Wisconsin cheese she was adding; just cheddar!)

But back to the char kuay teow. The set up was pretty basic - a cook and a helper manning a wok surrounded by ingredients, neatly laid out.

The star of any char kuay teow is of course the see hum (cockles, bottom right), freshly removed from their shells the night before by a team resembling Santa's elves in December. Apart from oil and soy sauce, other ingredients include sliced fish cake, peeled prawns, chili paste and garlic...

... not forgetting also the "green" ingredients, chives and tau geh (bean sprouts).

We had many helpers taking orders, preparing and replenishing the ingredients (like eggs), and taking shifts over the wok. All in all, we sold out the 200+ plates we aimed to fry, and the carnival in total raked in some MYR 100,000.

Now, some of you might find it a little ironical (or you might be just plain ol' horrified) at the idea of serving char kuay teow at an event aimed to raise funds for the rehabilitation of stroke victims. After all, char kuay teow is one of the most cholesterol-laden indulgences around (which makes it so yummmeee!).

However, we are in good company. When Dr. Mahathir Mohammad, our ex-Prime Minister, was able to take solid foods after his recent heart operation, he asked for his first meal, the equally artery-busting roti canai and subsequently char kuay teow. His daughter, Marina, had to explain rather sheepishly in her blog that the roti and char kuay teow her Dad was consuming were hospital-cooked version that passed the inspection of eagle-eyed nutritionists!

Certainly, the team at Nasam made sure we controlled the amount of the "bad stuff" in our char kuay teow (oil being the chief culprit), but I am sure it was far more delectable than any hospital food out there!

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Goodbye, Ah Huay

Our family cat, Ah Huay, died last Friday. She was a little under two years' old. She wandered off as usual in the morning to walk around the neighbourhood, and was hit by a vehicle. We only found out on Saturday, when a neighbour told us.

Ah Huay was a spunky little girl. She thought and behaved like a dog... not unusual since she had five older canine siblings. She meowed loudly everywhere she went, announcing her presence in no uncertain terms. We would often find her at our feet, looking for a tummy rub, and meowing if three seconds had passed and she hadn't gotten one.

One of her favourite perches was on top of the car bonnet, looking into the house. She had a panoramic view of all that went on in her kingdom.

When she wasn't sleeping blissfully on Dad's chair, stretched out like a, well, cat, she would find any number of chairs in the house, hang out and observe what was going on. The kitchen was always a hive of activity.

One day, as I was attempting to make the classic Hokkien noodle dish mee hoon kuay from scratch, Ah Huay sat across watching eagle-eyed, not very impressed with my technique on the dough. She wasn't far wrong... I sucked.

Goodbye Ah Huay, we will miss you.