Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Then and Now

APAI WAS ON THE HUNT for fresh fish for a dinner party. He said they were going to the coast via Batu Kawa. I jumped at the opportunity to re-visit childhood places. You drive to Batu Kawa without having to cross Sungai Sarawak by ferry. The more I move around Sarawak on my trips home, villages that used to be accessable by boat are only a drive away. But then you bemoan the loss of lush primary forest to oil palm plantations. The scourge of so called development, without environmental and social conscience.
   The shophouses at Batu Kawa are your typical terraced rows. Apai of course knows the best stall for lunch. This is a Hakka community and I was well pleased. My father is Hakka and I'm the only one of my siblings who can speak Hakka well as I used to converse in Hakka with Dad. I have noticed lately that if I speak Hakka to him, he would reply in Hokkien or as a surprise, add a fast quip in English!*

   Hakka cuisine is rather robust, a throwback to days when the Hakka worked hard and had to be nourished with food that does not have time for niceties. They cook a lot of pork (usually fatty), used a lot of carbohydrates like yams and sweet potato. Sugar and soya sauce were used liberally. 5-spice is the seasoning of choice. Leafy vegetables and mustard greens were preserved in times of plenty. Yong Tau Foo is a popular Hakka dish. Kiu Nyuk (fatty pork like pork belly) is cooked with soya sauce. Everything seemed to come in chunks.
   But not today at Batu Kawa. This stall specialised in Kolo Mee and soups with sliced lean pork, offal and other spare parts. The stock was made with pork bones and presrved mustard greens. The Kolo Mee was made with great care, the char siew sliced thin and fine and the noodles curly and al dente. Perfect! I digress, not a typical Hakka selection.
   After a chinwag in Hakka (the louder the better), we departed on our drive to Kampung Telaga Air. The trip was fast, the road well sealed. The Padawan Municipal Council (formerly Kuching Rural District Council) has built a food and drink complex (in Malay architectural style) at Kampung Telaga and the outlook across the Sungai Sibu to Sibu Laut was as serene as the pace of life. We had drinks as temperature was nudging 34°C. Nothing better than ABC of shaved iced or Limau Kasturi with ice.

   I had Teh Tarik because Apai had bought cookies and local cakes and that was the best drink combination. The Pisang Goreng was freshly deep-fried, same with the Cucur Udang and Curry Puffs.  Mix that with the sesame balls and Kuih Sepit (Love Letters), this was a decadent mid afternoon tea. I resisted sticking the Kuih Sepit on my fingers as we used to do when young. Kuih Sipit makes it's appearance at Chinese New Year and Hari Raya but now you get them all year round. They are either rolled into a cylinder after being picked up from the heated patterned mould clamp or they can be folded twice from it's circular shape. The Sarawak home-made Kuih Sepit uses santan (coconut milk) to impart a lemak flavour and taste.

  Time to head across the river to Rambungan. The ferry took us across the Sungai Sibu and we passed through the nipah palm groves growing out of the coastal waters. There are a lot of small tributaries and in days old I once accompanied Grandad on his visit to his mates who had a provisions store in Rambungan. The whole trip was by boat and as we got nearer to Rambungan, the waterways became narrower and narrower. So much so the boatmen had to use poles to push off from the nipah groves. Then the heavens opened after a prolonged spell of lightning and thunder of the tropical kind. I had to stay inside the claustophic boat, dark, airless and laden with charcoal and prompted fainted.
   This was turniing into a break I didn't need. A series of wooden walkways led us to the store which was built on stilts. This was extremely low lying land, just above sea level. As with Chinese hospitality, all kinds of seafood was cooked, from scaly ones to shell and crab. None of which I wanted to eat so I had to request for fried egg with a touch of soya sauce on rice.
   Back to the future. The drive to the fishing kampung is picturesque. Most of the houses are freshly painted and had more than 5 colours in the Malay tradition. Picture perfect. The roads and lanes are recently sealed, an election special to garner votes. There were a few fish stalls but none of them could sell the fish to Apai as they had been pre-sold to restarants in Kuching.
   Life has certainly changed.

* Since this blog was posted, my Dad passed away on 6 August 2013, coincidentally my birthday. His was a long life well-lived, the best Dad you could ever wish for. He never ever raised his voice at any of his children and we have never heard him utter an adverse word about  anyone. When he was able, there was nothing he wouldn't do for us
or his grandchildren. On this Father's Day, I posted on Facebook my most favourite photograph of him, paddling a canoe with Mum on the flooded surrounds of the old family house at Jalan Green. It flooded
regularly after heavy tropical downpours.
Of our Dad, we miss him very much.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Oh yes, Paradise!

SHUK AND ELLIOT were back in town. They dream of Paradise as soon as they land. We can see why this is their favourite Indian restaurant in Auckland, and the number of diners here attests to this fact. It's the best. Chef/owner Salah came to Auckland via Sydney 7 years ago where he had a similar restaurant.
   Paradise is cricket-themed, with signed photographs of Indian cricketing stars like Sachin Tendulkar adorning the walls (albeit taken at their Sydney restaurant) with a series of signed cricket bats, appropriately framed and labelled. Classic Indian Tests are shown on the big screen, on a continuous loop but in the many times we have been to Paradise, we haven't yet encountered India v Black Caps Tests which has been few and far between of late.

   Chef Salah and his team mainly cook cuisine from Hyderabad but the menu encompasses influences from all over India and neighbouring countries from ancestral trade routes. Hence there are Moghul-style food and even Manchurian Chicken (cooked in soya sauce and coriander).
   Elliot knows the menu well and tonight, ordered Biryani Chicken and Tandoori Baked fish (pomfret). I wanted to try the Chicken Kandai. It didn't disappoint us when it was served in a medium-sized kwali, spicy and creamy but no cream or coconut were used. Chef used cashew nuts to achieve this creamy consistency.
   Biryani is one of the the most popular dishes here. You can have it either with lamb or chicken. The Biryani is slowed cooked with rice to bring out the full depth of flavours. The rice is perfectly fluffy and is served topped with a boiled egg. There is yoghurt to cool down the spicy hot.

   Salah says pomfret is his favourite fish. It's a flat fish so it's easy to marinate and the flavours permeate through. It's twice-cooked, first in the tandoor and them panfried with the spice-mix paste on top, served garnished with raw onion rings and lemon. We had naan bread to go with dinner, as well as plain basmati rice. Eating with fingers is encouraged. We can see why, food of this kind tastes so much better when you engage the fingers to combine the flavours.
   Elliot introduced us to a fizzy Indian cola called Thums Up. They call it the the taste of thunder. I thought they should stop the description right there but it degenerates into saying 'it's confident, mature and uniquely masculine attitude. The Thums Up brand clearly seeks to separate the men from the boys'. Obviously targeting the cricketer in some of us, methinks!
   Paradise serves halal food. They have a new outlet next door for takeaways. It's the month of Ramadan now and for Salah and his team, there is the added pressure of having to fast during daylight hours. But we can think of no better way to break the fast than have the food they cook and serve here.

591 Sandringham Road
Ph 09-8451144

Saturday, July 13, 2013


ILLUMINATE was unleashed overnight at Chan Andreassend Studios, the first production of the Arts Menagerie. The group launches its first exhibition with the question: 'Who are you? How would you express the artist within you as an illuminated artwork?'
The artists have answered this called with light shows of many divervse origins and approach, the results of some of which are shown in this photo montage.

✪ Threads by Ronald Andreassend, a personal image show of family history projected onto a large white paper lantern (from Wah Lee)
✪ Front sign post ✪ Smoking Kills by FarZah Zamani

✪ Untitled by Jude Nye (foreground) ✪ Augenblick by Nils Blumreiter ✪ Art Menagerie group installion at the entrance
✪ Flowers, installation by Didier Ng ✪ String in Black Light Study by Sinn-Mae Chung ✪ Lanterns by Neha Malhotra

The Arts Menagerie is a collaborative initiative with a diverse collection of committed creatives, artists, collaborators, brain stormers, and experimenters who are passionate about expressing creativity through an assortment of avenues.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Come on up to the Second Floor

WE HAVE BEEN ON the quest for the best Xiao Long Bao in Auckland and we finally found them at Second Floor in Parnell. Auntie Jenny noticed this restaurant open without fanfare and on a cold winter's night, we decided to give it a go. Parnell is not known for its restaurants (apart from Antiones, Non Solo Pizza and Java Room), it's more a twee tourist destination.

    So it's up the stairs of this old grand villa and into a restaurant fitted out without reds, and the dining room openes out to the twinking lights that seem to line much of Parnell. You can't help noticing the three chandeliers. And a large replica phonograph that was playing Chinese traditional music played on the pipa, dizi, guqin and suona. It's rather rather incongrous to see this phonograph, half expecting Nipper the dog to pop up and sit beside the wind-up gramophone listening to His Master's Voice (HMV).
   We chose the Xiao Long Bao from the Chinese Pastry section of the menu (Steamed Pork Buns). You get 5 for $8. The benchmark Xiao Long Bao is of course from Din Tai Fung. Yes there are 18 pleats (we counted!) and the the filling of minced pork in soup cannot be faulted. We placed julienne of fresh ginger on top of the Xiao Long Bao on the porcelain spoon, drizzled with a few drops of black Chinese vinegar and proceed to slowly consume this delectable morsel with small bite and sips. Heaven!
   There are 11 entrees, of which Olive Leaves & Broad Bean and Beef Floss & Sesame Pockets caught our eye. But it will have to be another time.

   Of the mains, the Chef's Special Pork was a standout. It's worth noting the Chefs are from Beijing and Shanghai. The menu describes the Special as slowly cooked and steamed slice pork belly, with chestnuts, long beans and sun-dried vegetable. Our waitperson advised that we won't be disappointed. Truly not. It arrived looking sumptious crafted into a layered pyramid. She said Chef layered the sliced pork belly into a mould before cooking in dark sweet soya sauce. The pork-belly was deconstructed at the table and served on steamed rice. It would have been good to have a little burner under the bowl to keep this dish warm.

   We also had the Tomato and Egg to accompany the pork belly. It's more like comfort food for us, a throwback to our younger days when Mum would whip up a quick breakfast or lunch. Light sauce drizzled on the tomato and scrambled egg on rice. Second Floor stuff the tomato with egg as well.
   The Dessert menu was tempting especially the Pumpkin Puffs. But we were happily replete and made a mental note of the Lunch Menu.
   So we should be very happy with Second Floor. Yes, we were, the food cannot be faulted. It's 8°C outside and there is no heating. Furthermore towards the end of the evening, the two serving staff opened half the windows facing the street, to air the dining room. It wasn't condusive to end our meal in comfort. Maybe that was the reason why the waiter was wearing a black puffer jacket throughout service. Akin to wearing track pants I thought. Not the right attire for a restaurant of this calibre. Nothing that can't be fixed though and this is a gem in Auckland Chinese dining.

Level 2
317 Parnell Road
Ph (09) 368 5788

Monday, July 8, 2013

Oh Mamak!

RESTAURATEUR JEFFERY NG has found his culinary niche. He has opened his drawcard Mamak spot with wife Charlotte in the Chancery Precinct, Auckland CBD. With a captive market of Malaysian nationals, students, a lot of whom live in the central city, and locals who love Malaysian food, Mamak caters for all. It's a firm favourite with my CWI Aunties.

Mamak refers to the cuisine of Tamil-Muslims of West Malaysia. Mamak stalls and cafes offer cheap abundant food, from breakfast to dinner. Most dishes are accompanied by roti and the usual dhal or curry. Jeffery has picked up on this model and opened Mamak Malaysian as a modern take on Mamak cuisine. Muslims can dine here, the food is halal. And the chef is from Sarawak, our home State.
The fit out is modern, with Malay phrases and English translations on the walls. You can sit outside under huge shades in the precinct. Gas heaters keep you warm. Start with Mamak Tapas: Tofu Sambal, Sambal Grilled Prawns, Chicken Satay, Spicy Soft-shell Crab, Pandan Soy Bites, Sambal Sotong Balls or Sambal Telur (deep-fried hard boiled eggs with sambal sauce).
For mains, you can't go wrong with the Nasi Lemak, or a Beef Rendang, all manner of curries served with lemak rice or roti and Indian cabbage. You can have the roti as roti canai, roti telur (egg) or roti bawang (onion). For noodles: Mee Goreng, Char Kueh Tiaw, Curry Chicken Ho Fun. The food is authentic enough but more tailored for the New Zealand palate. The robust tastes of the cooking at Mamak stalls is not quite there though the food is spicy and hot enough (check the 3 chilli indication). Nice serving touches include lemak rice (with coconut milk), banana leaf and sambal, big plates and deep bowls.
For drinks, Tiger Beer is a great accompaniment, and their wine is by the mini-bottle. Rather humorous and wine afficianados will turn their noses up at this choice. But then wine does not feature much in Mamak cuisine, it's a European affectation. You can choose Teh Tarik (pulled tea), Teh Ais (ice milk tea) or Kopi O to end the meal with with the piéce de rèsistance Roti Tissue, crispy 'tissue' thin roti built in a cone 40cm high. The inside surface has a sugar syrup. For added sweetness, there is a saucer of condensed milk for you to dip into. Rather decadent!

The young squeal with delight when they find they can have Kickapoo Joy Juice or A&W Root Beer. I have been meaning to ask Jeffery whether he make me a root beer float. One day, soon.

50 Kitchener Street
Chancery Precinct
Ph 09 9486479

Friday, July 5, 2013

Ponsonby Produce Market

PONSONBY CENTRAL launched the next stage of their retail concept with the opening of the Ponsonby Produce Market, a gourmet mix of fresh produce, food, wine and cafes.
The back building is now complete, with Foxtrot Parlour, The Dairy, Little Bread & Butter, Wine Direct, Ceres Fresh Market, Jimmy The Fish, Neat Meat, The Goods Store and Eighthirty Coffee are all onboard. Opening day brought in the punters, some refugees from being turned away from Ponsonby Central's hotspot, The Blue Breeze Inn.

A regular feature will be cooking demonstrations by Sri Lankan chef Kit Perara, who has been hosting his famous Chef For A Night Dinners at the Fisher & Paykel Kitchen at the Ponsonby Produce Market. Today, he enchanted his audience with cooking Monfish Coconut Curry and had four young ones who helped with making the roti with curry leaves. Kit Perera knows his stuff and had the audience in the palm of his hand. As former Cricket Master at Christ College, he knows how to handle the youngsters, especially poor Jackson who dropped his finished roti. "No harm done, the 2-second rule applies" as the roti was swiftly picked off the floor.

incorporating Ponsonby Produce Market
136-138 Ponsonby Road

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Batik Artist Michael Lim

ARTIST MICHAEL LIM has been painting batiks ever since I was a student in Kuching. We all looked up to him and Ramsay Ong, they projected and defined art in Sarawak with their observations of life in native longhouses and kampungs. They painted the rich tapestry of life around them, in a medium that was local and suited exactly what they were trying to express.
We used to dye our waxed fabric in dye baths, starting with the lightest color (yellow) and cracked the wax according to create that signature cracked texture that batiks achieve. The days of large trays of dyes are long gone. Dyes are now brushed on, the wax delineates areas of the colours. Large batik paintings and murals can can now be created without dye baths.

Ramsay Ong went on to explore other aspects of batiks and painting, using rice paper, silk, painting on bark and took off to far-flung places like Sri Lanka to continue his quest. Michael Lim has steadfastly stayed with batik techniques and also produced works of art in water-colour and acrylics.

His home in Jalan Mendu, Kuching is his studio. He paints in tropical splendour, surrounded by native bush and durian trees. His works adorn all the walls and and holds regular shows for invited guests and visitors. He has patrons in local dignitaries and tourists come and view and more often than not, commission him to do pieces as per what he has on show. Well how can you resist when he always has spreads of Nonya kuehs and local kopi-o waiting for you, being such an accomplished cook.
Michael Lim finds inspiration in his acute observations of orchids, pitcher plants and the protected bird of Sarawak, the hornbill. A few of his works literally hang from the ceiling or mural-like across the wall. There are a few native longhouse paintings, around around, amidst wooden carvings by the Ibans or antique beadwork by Bidayuh, Kenyah or Kelabit.
Batik Artist
10 Lorong Satu
Jalan Mendu
+60 82 246906

Monday, July 1, 2013

Lot 10 Hutong

WHEN LOT 10 was built in 1991 at Bukit Bintang (Star Hill), Kuala Lumpur it was the place to shop as it was the leading shopping complex, modern in it's green cladding and metallic detailing. Since it's heyday, it has been now surpassed by Suria KLCC and lately the grand Pavilion. Lot 10 Hutong was created to revive the food centre at the lower ground floor.

Lot 10 Hutong is based on the the concept of the food outlets of the narrow alleys and lanes (hutong) of Beijing. Management went out to handpick established hawker outlet and cafes from Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Seremban, Ipoh and Malacca, eateries that have survived the 2nd and 3rd generations and famous for their signature dishes. It's has become a site for heritage street food stalls, a gourmet village.

Of course there is a lot of competition from all the established food lanes like Jalan Alor, the new mega eating outlets like Food Republic at Pavilion. Many locals say the food is more expensive but admit that it's a perfect one-stop centre of over 30 stalls, each furbished in traditional styles and it's clean and air-conditioned.

Have a Kopi-O at Nanyang Ten Coffee Shop. They roast their own coffee. Or have a teh C or teh tarik. They have the full range of breakfast favourites, and all manner of local toasts like roti kahwin with kaya. If you are looking for congee, you can'go past Swatow Teochew Porridge and have youtiao to go with it. For noodles Kim Lian Kee make robust Hokkien Noodles, Ho Weng Kee is famous for their BBQ Pork Wantan Mee, with the noodles cooked with dark soya sauce. For Hakka fare, go to Adon Traditinal Yong Tau Foo. You can get Woo Ping famed fish-head noodles. The Chua brothers have brought their Duck Egg Char Kway Teow to Lot 10 Hutong.

You can have a snack of Campbell Mini Popiah and Mr Siew Bao. Or if in the pursuit of a good Chicken Rice, you're in luck, you can have the chicken poached roasted from Chong Hwa Hainan Chicken Rice. I had ham chim peng as a treat and there are many other kuehs you can choose from. End your food odyssey with Ais Kacang or Bubur Cha Cha from Oriental Desserts.

Undeniably all national food treasures. So much so the New York Times listed Lot 10 Hutong as one of 'Asia's Top Odysseys'. Now the Hutong concept is set to open in Guangzhou this month.

Lot 10 Hutong
Lower ground floor
Lot 10
50 Jalan Sultan Ismail
Bukit Bintang
Kuala Lumpur