Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Bloggers' dinner

"Let's call it "Eclipse Mee Sua with Tartar's Sauce" I quipped, and Louis nearly choked on his spoon.

No, I was not trying to change the name of the dish, Fried Mee Sua with cangkuk manis, but only the caption of the photo taken by Louis, who used Allen's Canon EOS350 to take a shot of the dish with the flash panning from one side rendering the mee sua with a dark side like an eclipsed moon. (Hey Allen send me the eclipse pic). And the leftover tartar sauce from the fish and chip dish compliment it nicely!

Actually, trying to fry mee sua is a very delicate job, because mee sua is not meant to be fried! Its a soup dish. You soak it in hot water and dunk them in hot piping chicken soup or pig intestine soup or other herbal soup, and they must be consumed within a few minutes or it will turn too soft. Thus over fried mee sua will loose its "sponginess" (somewhat like the sponginess of bee hoon or rice vermicelli).

Caroline (the proprietor of Village Fast Food) had done a great job by not rendering the mee sua too soft. It was still fluffy and pliable, not reduced to a sticky mass of clumped flour. This is called "skill" or "kang hoo"! I love it!

But lets get to the first dish, the Hot and Sour soup. Well, I think the "Hot" here means steaming hot not the fanning-your-sticked-out-tongue and asking for a glass of cold water type of hot. Which was why I had to sprinkle some pepper powder to spice thing up.

I think Caroline was trying to be on the safe side, by not coming on strong with the seasonings, as she used them sparingly to avoid the crowd clutching their throats gasping for cold water, but to a cilipadi muncher like me "Hot" here merely means the temperature of the soup. Well, I guess you can't please everyone all at the same time. I love the soup flavour which was also not too starchy, but can you please pass the pepper again, sorry, and the cut chilli too.

Next, the Nestum Fish Fillet. "It looks like butter prawn, it tastes like butter prawn, but it ain't butter prawn!" Said Allen to Maozi.

"But it says here in the menu it is butter prawn!" insisted Maozi, who promptly dissected it, peered into it and declared: "Oh! Confirm! its not prawn, its fish fillet!"

Indeed, it was Nestum Fish Fillet, as it pre-empted the butter prawn, which was No.2 on the menu, hence the confusion.

I find the Fish Fillet rather plain, maybe because salad fish fillet rice is readily available in most food court in Kuching together with salad chicken rice. A few points taken down here. Hey, don't blame me if I raised our standard a notch or two higher up on occasion like this! However if pitted against the food court fare, it outshines most of what I've tasted.

Nyonya Sweet & Sour Chicken. You know, its funny that whenever the word "nyonya" is prefixed to a dish, I subconsciously raised the bar, and this was no exception. Unfortunately I am not an ardent fan of chicken meat, but I was delighted with the subtle taste of the sauce, especially the crunchy lemongrass and its slightly piquant unmistakable nyonya flavoured sauce spread over cut slivers of steamed chicken meat. Kudos to Caroline. I love this dish and devoured a few morsels before it was "rudely" taken away by the waitress who thought we'd finished. Our mistake was "pretending" to be well-mannered and not to wallop everything in one go. To Naomi and the Boys, learn your lesson. Next time if you like a dish, just grab it! Leave your manner at home!

4 combo vegetable. Ah, at last a dish to keep carnivore Maozi ("I'm a meat-arian") rested for a while. This is a stirred fried smorgasbord of long bean, eggplant, "kui tao" (somebody please give me the correct spelling please?) and ladies finger.

Again, Caroline played the safe card by sprinkling the sambal (or was it sambal?) sparingly. Actually this is a clever ploy. It gives a dish a "mysterious" aftertaste and teases the eaters to guess what's being put into it. An over-spiced with sambal stir-fry vege dish like this is normal fare at most household, but this is a delightful change. I'll try to suggest to my wife to ease up on the sambal next time. Only thing is I have to do it diplomatically or she'll hit me with a spatula and demands "you think you can cook better meh?", and goes on strike.

Fish and chips. Well, what can I say, I never tasted a real Britisher's fish and chips, suffice to say it reminded me of Nestum fish fillet a few dishes ago. But I do admit the deco of the chips is very nicely done up.

I'm sucker for chips really and I have to say I love them no matter what size and shape and length they come in.

Butter prawn! My fave dish! There are two schools of thought here. One, eat the shell too, for that's where the flavour is, and its make the prawn crunchier. Two,eat them without the shell, thus forgo the flavouring. I think the first option makes sense as eating without the shell defeats the whole purpose of eating Butter prawn. However, this dilemma is solved if the butter prawns are done in a "dry" style, that is, done with plenty of flour/nestum/butter crumbs. You take the shell off and eat the "naked" prawn with the fragrant crunchy crumbs that comes generously on the platter. Unfortunately, Caroline's butter prawn was a "wet" version, meaning there was no crumbs to pick up, so to savour the full flavour of the dish, you have to eat the prawn, shell and all.

I personally do not like to munch on prawn shell, but then Francis went around table to table to give a friendly reminder on how to appreciate this dish, i.e. swallow the shell too, I had to follow the crowd too. Frankly, it taste delicious! Pity I had earlier spat out the shell of my first prawn, and picking them up from my plate and putting them into my mouth again would probably make Naomi roll her eyes.

Grilled Beef Steak. Could this be the piece de resistance? as I read the menu. People usually "save the best for last" after all.

Well, I wouldn't not place this dish on the top of the list. But then you can't please everybody like I say. Some like it hot, some like it rare, some swear by spreading mustard on it. For me, I just want it well-done and a generous dollop of extra-spicy black pepper sauce. But I thought the steak was a bit "joon" or rubbery or shall I blame it on my denture? Oh, picky picky! This grumpy old man!

Burp. 'Scuse me! Well, that was really some dinner, and I really enjoy the company I had in my table, even with Fahri kept on blinding us momentarily with his super powerful strobe-light. While the organiser/promoter Francis kept the boisterous crowd in stitches with his antics. And oh, I'd like to add, I really like they way the food here are done without the msg, and the taste is still delicious! Its the first time I came home from a dinner without gulping down my whole container of plain water! I know Caroline must have put in a lot of thought into coming up with this set of menu. Who wouldn't, pandering to a bunch of food bloggers, and so call "food critic" like me, why, she must have gone through scores of recipe books! And I salute her for it! Well done, Caroline, and thank you and to Francis too for the invite. You asked us to call a spade a spade and I just did that.

(For lovers of fine home-style cooking (without the msg!) please head to Caroline's Village Fast Food along Jalan Central, Kuching, right next door after the Shell petrol station. Drive right in, there are plenty of parking spaces! All photos here are courtesy of Francis)

(P/s Some events and descriptions here had been exaggerated to elicit some chuckles, if I offend some, please forgive me for they are not intentional.)

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Cruise to Nowhere

Star Cruises, the behemoth cruise ship company advertises a “Cruise to nowhere” where passengers are taken to the high seas, on a cruise to Nowhere, just chugging along. Once the liner crosses the imaginary line into international waters where no law of any sovereign nation reigns, they will roll out the crap tables, jiggle the die in their cupped palms and stack up the chips. The passengers, on hearing the “frapping” of a deck of cards, will rush lemming-like to the trap door of the on-board casino to unload their hard-earn (or ill-gotten) dollars. “Never in my life has so much of my money been lost on so devious a game of wager in so short a time.” lamented a crest-fallen punter. Sad.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. A cruise to nowhere? Why, we have it right here in good ol’ Sarawak, Kuching to be precise. Now, I’m not saying it’s as romantic as riding the gondola on a moonlit Venice night or the wet-your-pants roller coaster of white water rafting, and certainly it lacks the creature comfort of being in an ocean liner. But what the heck, it’s good clean, wobbly fun. Welcome to the tambang of Sungai Sarawak.

The flimsy looking sampan, called a tambang locally, is actually a large canoe of varying length from 15 to 20 feet long, and about 4 to 5 feet wide. Originally catering to ferrying the kampung folks living across the Sarawak River to the Main Bazaar and back, nowadays, the cigarette dangling from the frail weather-beaten Malay boatman’s lips wouldn't drop even if hordes of ogling tourists descent upon his vessel, as long as they don’t rock it for fun.

This endearing icon of “life in the slow lane” can actually be a therapeutic break for the high-strung stress-pressed corporate ladder climbers, if only for a brief duration of half-hour return trip and costing literally a cup of coffee without milk.

These ferries usually berth at the many landing points along the Kuching Waterfront. Thus if you are going to the Astana or its vicinity, choose the landing point right opposite to it, or if you’re visiting the kampung further down stream, go further down the Waterfront where there is another berthing place. There are many of these tambangs plying the river day and night.

By the way, don’t bother asking for the schedule or timetable. As long as the boat is reasonably filled up, he sets sail. But “reasonably” filled up can also mean just one passenger which could be the boatman’s kampung neighbour who’s in labour, and she probably doesn't have to pay a single cent. Thus, I suspect for a fistful of red-colour Malaysian banknotes, he may be willing break his routine and take you for a ride, I mean, to unscheduled stops, (farther downstream, upstream) if its not “rush hour”. But do check this out yourself.

As you hop on to the platform of the boat, you may unwittingly step on a cluster of coins of various denomination lying on it. Don’t be a busy body by scooping them up and smilingly ask who’d drop some coins. These are the fare that all passengers drop as they step off the boat on arriving at their destination. The fare is usually 30 sen, but some generous hearts give more. If you don't have change and have to drop a ringgit note, you may help yourself to some change, but hey, what’s a few cents donation to the poor guy and making our economy stronger?

As the “roof” is only 4 feet high, going inside this boat is like lowering yourself to enter a tunnel. Besides, the vessel is configured to accommodate the small frame of the local denizens, many a tall guy and Caucasians passengers have been seen to actually crawl in! When you are comfortably seated in the bobbing cabin, you will notice that a minuscule porthole the size of your paperback behind you. Not a very great way to see the scenery panoramic style, but wait! Say “hi” first to the makcik (elderly Malay lady) clutching a basketful of grocery sitting next to you, and smile at the shy school boy sitting opposite you, then only rest your two feet long telephoto lens on the window sill to start shooting.

Nowadays, the tambang are usually motorized and very few are manually rowed. The boatman is at the front throttling the outboard engine, and it usually takes less than 5 minutes to cross the languid flowing river. Personally I prefer a muscle powered ride, as it takes a longer while to cross, while I can chat with the makcik on how best to cook kangkong with sambal. Besides, whoever heard of motorized Venice gondola? (Maybe they have it already too). Sigh. It is a sad end for the age of Romance, indeed.

The opposite bank was once the playground of the White Rajahs, the abode of James, Charles and Vyner Brooke. Until 1941, they were masters of all they surveyed from the rampart of Fort Margarita. Alas, WW II put paid to what could have been another generation of white rule, for better or worse, nobody knows. Anyway, a brisk walk will take you to the Astana, where the present Governor calls home. Visitors are only allowed in on festive occasions like His Excellency’s birthday or the once-a-year Hari Raya open house. If you synchronise your visit to coincide with the latter, you may queue up with the horde of well-wishers to shake His Excellency’s hand and help yourself to a scrumptious buffet after that.

Since there’s nothing else to see as the gate of the Astana is closed, you may adjourn to the few food stalls near the jetty. The menu may not be inspiring here, but the ubiquitous teh tarik is available to quench your thirst until your sampan arrives.

Finally with a heave-ho the boatman bumps up his boat to the jetty and unload his passengers again and ready to take you in for the trip back. As you step into the boat, you just remember! You forgot to pay your fare when you got off half an hour ago! How cruel! But fret not, its payback time, as you rummage your pocket all the coins you can get, you come up triumphantly with a handful, and dutifully plonk them down on the deck while all the makciks and adik adik (school kids) smiled and nodded approvingly. You raise your bottle of mineral water high up, and, facing them, declare: “To Sarawak’s economy” and drink it.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Laksa Hunters

Tracking down the best laksa in town is one of the favourite pursuits for me, being a sucker for this most beloved of Sarawak’s cuisine. So after reading a glowing report in a local newspaper about a certain Barrett Tan’s laksa, I decided to check it out with my friends Justin and Francis, two equally die-hard laksa fanatics.

It was already ten o’clock in the morning and the weather was hot, just perfect for a bowl of laksa to purge all our body’s impurities out via sweating! The coffee shop is located in the Bormill area behind Jln Keretapi. We were lucky, Barrett was there manning the stall doing his stuff.

When the three bowls of laksa were brought before us, Francis gave an incredulous cry, “Where’s the wansui (coriander)?” For hard-core laksa purists like us, chowing down laksa without coriander is like munching hot dog without mustard.

“It’s difficult to get them, not that we don’t want to give any.” the lady explained, sounding very apologetic.

Francis groaned, “Well, that’s one star taken off the rating already!” as Justin and I nodded in unison. Even the extra scoops of cut parsley given to us could not placate our disappointment, for absolutely nothing can replace the ghastly smell of coriander so vital to a bowl of wholesome Sarawak laksa. But in a generous mood that morning, we decided to adopt an open mind and reserved our verdict at the end.

The soup stock was fragrant, but its brownish colour was not appealing enough as it lacked the bright orangey tinge of chili oil. Except for the lack of coriander, garnishing got pretty high marks with the prawns, fish cake and chicken shreddings.

However, a simple ritual has to be performed before a real laksa connoisseur commence eating, and that is to hold the lime with the cut opened side against the spoon while holding the latter above the sambal, then squeeze until the lime juice drip on to the mini sambal saucer without the seeds dropping. This way it eliminates the hassle (however frivolous. Hey, I told you this is a ritual, right?) of picking up the seeds from from the sambal. Next, gently stir the mixture (the juice and the sambal) in the little saucer until it asssumes a watery paste. While you struggle to contain your drooling saliva, quicky pour the whole mixture into the laksa and start stirring until they are evenly mixed with the soup. Some like to order an extra sambal for dipping the prawns and chicken shreddings in to.

Sorry, another digression. Scoop up the beehoon, it should be so piping hot that the steam clouds your glasses, another hallmark of a good bowl of laksa. You see, you can have great taste, brilliant presentation, tons of garnishing and heaps of coriander, and I don’t care it’s as hot as noon time in the Sahara Desert without an umbrella, if the soup is not searing my tongue or heavens forbid, lukewarm, wham! My chopsticks will come crashing down as I summon the waiter to redo the dish. Excuse me for the outburst, but that’s how passionate we Sarawakians are about our laksa.

Back to Barrett’s soup. I find it piquant and rich enough to send the tastebuds in my tongue go dancing with joy. Yes, it has the full-bodied you-cant-express-in-words taste of the real Laksa Sarawak. And my two laksamigos seemed to concur.

“How is it?” I asked prodding for a response from both of them, after we wiped traces of the soup from our mouths when we finished.

“Hmmm… good, very good, will come again definitely”, said Francis, apparently he had forgiven Barrett the missing coriander and the off-colour soup.

“Very good! Look at my sweat and my running nose!” Justin enthused as he quickly wiped them away.

My verdict? Burp! Excuse me. I love it! Barrett makes me proud to be a Sarawakian! Enough said.

Just then Barrett happened to walked by and as the crowd had thinned somewhat, Justin stopped him asked a very interesting question. “Who invented Sarawak Laksa?”. Little did we knew that we were talking to the custodian of the most sought after secret recipe of the most popular food of Sarawak, the son of the inventor himself!

We listened in fascination as Barrett related how his late father, Mr Tan Yong Him, who ran a canteen in a school in the late 1950s, concocted a soup stock to go with the beehoon, and through many years of experiments finally came up with the winning recipe, which until today is still the trade secret of the Tan family.

“So in other words, before your father came up with this recipe, there was no such thing as Sarawak Laksa?” I cheekily asked. “Nope!” was the reply. There you have it! Now you know who is the real McCoy of Sarawak Laksa! It’s Mr Barrett Tan!

Barrett even have a factory manufacturing packets of laksa paste for sale, and he also exports them to overseas market for nostalgic Malaysians there. We were shown a showcase of the products complete with jars of sambal balachan. Barrett even gave us a lecture on how to make the perfect Sarawak Laksa by divulging certain “secrets” to us. Yes! I do know the secret already! No, I’m not disclosing them here. If you are interested do go to his cafe and entice him to reveal it! Or visit his website.

Ended up Justin and Francis each bought several packets and some sambal. Me? I’m the lazy one! The what they call culinary ignoramus on the cooking side. I prefer to take the easy way out - eat out! The last time I hold a frying pan and a spatula in my kitchen, I dropped the frying pan when my handphone rang in my pocket. Butterfingers. Cooking don’t run in my family.