Thursday, November 26, 2009

When in Singapore, you Sling it.

The Singapore Sling to me has always been one of those drinks that you saw depicted on placemats at old Chinese restaurants. You know, the kinds that were opened in the 50s, still served chop suey and were decorated with paper lanterns. Remember?

The Sling was originally invented at the Raffles hotel by a Chinese bartender named Ngiam Toong Boon in the early 20th century. Main ingredients include Gin, Cherry Heering, Dom Bénédictine and pineapple juice. It's the national drink in Singapore (at least for tourists) and it's served as a complimentary beverage to the biz-class passengers on Singapore Airlines.

But let's face it: Most Slings are awful. Sickly sweet, you're more often to get a version that tastes like cough syrup at best, concentrated Kool-Aid at worst. But I'm not like the fun-haters over at who think the drink must die. Admittedly, the drink is poor the vast majority of the time it is ordered. But a true Sling is sublime and it is quite possible to have one.

Case in point: The sling I had at the Fullerton Hotel was not only perfectly balanced in flavour but had the perfect colour gradations. Served in a tall curvaceous glass, you could see the cocktail go from a dark red to a light yellow as you cat your eyes up the glass. At the top of the drink, sat a frothy, creamy foam, like the proper crema of an espresso. And to top it off, a slice of fresh pineapple and, of course, a Marachino cherry. As for the flavor, the bartender's well-slung sling contained the perfect proportions of liquers and included freshly made unsweetened pineapple juice.

With the craft cocktail trend in full motion back in the US, bartenders are revisiting some of the old tiki classics - Mai Tai! - and making them more tuned to adult palates rather than the sweet fruitbombs for the wine cooler generation. Finally. A finely mixed Sling or Mai Tai that isn't sickly sweet is one of the greatest refreshments I've ever known. It's vacation in a glass – tropical, daring, adventerous and slightly mysterious (what exactly is in this drink?).

So, to the much-maligned sling, I salute you. Enjoy one at the Fullerton if you can.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Meet Robert Sim.

I met Robert (pictured above, holding a shark's head) when I first arrived in Penang. He has a small, modest restaurant called Robert Sim Seafood on the main road to Batu Ferringhi. I came in for dinner in October, a few ringitts short of a decent meal (I forgot my wallet and realized I only had a few small bills and some change.) He looked at me, nodded and said I could have whatever I wanted. "Feed you first, talk money later."

We didn't talk about money, though. I told him I was a fellow cook, so he sat with me as I ate (a steamed grouper and some belancan kang kong, if I recall) and we talked about life in the kitchen. He asked me about Paris. I asked him about working in hotels and big restaurants in Asia. He showed me his small kitchen, his mise en place and kept chatting to me as he wokked out a few dishes to customers. When I was about to leave, he invited me to try out his chee chong fun at his hawker stand at the nearby Tanjung Bungah market. (He does chee chong fun in the mornings; dinner at his restaurant during the evenings.) I promised I would. We shook hands and I went home.

A couple of days after my meal, I went to his hawker stand. He said I had to come by his restaurant in an hour to take a look at something special, something extremely rare. He told me he got a hold of some hammerhead shark head, and he was going to break it down and prepare it for the dinner service.

I've the whole preparation on video and it was something special to see indeed. I felt both excited and queasy about watching him prepare what is fish that is becoming disturbingly scarce. I got to test a few pieces too (near-extinction is, sadly, delicious). Yes, yes, I must edit and post the whole video soon. But the photo above is the teaser: Here is Robert, holding up the shark head, imitating its ferocious appetite.

But the reason I'm teasing is this: The past few days, I've started a stage of sorts, trailing Robert, learning the ways of the wok, helping him prep and admiring how he can bang out his dishes for his restaurant all by himself.

I'll certainly have more to report on this experience for sure. Some topics I will explore in the future: making belancan chili sauce, his deep-fry method and eating obscenely good fried chicken for staff meal. (Speaking of which, I've got the leftovers in my fridge....)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Episode 2: Joo Hooi Cafe (Penang)

So the day after I arrived in Penang, Brione takes me to George Town and promises a lunch that would set me right for my stay, an intro-to-Penang meal of sorts. She wants to take me to an old-school coffee shop, tattered and worn, with top-notch food made by sweaty, overworked hawkers. I am about to see something very Penang, I'm told.

We get off the bus at the hilarious monstrosity that is the KOMTAR office tower (as pictured on the t-shirt above) and she leads to me a few blocks away to Joo Hooi Cafe. The place is a dump, but a charming one in that way that old businesses can be when you can easily imagine them to be exactly the same five decades back. The real reason we're here: To knock off very credible versions of two Penang classics at one stop – assam laksa and char kway teow.

First, a quick primer:

Assam laksa: A noodle soup with a sour and spicy tamarind-laced fish soup with rice noodles and served with a bit of shredded lettuce and cucmber.

Char kway teow: Rice noodles fried along with chili sauce, garlic, shrimp, Chinese sausage and eggs.

I have to admit that the laksa, at first taste, is a full assault on the taste buds and a totally confusing one, at first. My year in France prior to arriving here has tempered my tongue. The French are wonderful cooks, but they're not so much into huge flavours that overwhelm your tongue like a German blitzkrieg.
During my first two spoonfuls of laksa, I think I'm tasting several things that I have been hardwired by my classical French training that should not go together. First, it's incredibly fishy – the mackerel in the soup are flaked to thicken the stock, add texture and give a strong flavour. Secondly, it's quite spicy - there's an ample amount of chillies. Thirdly, there are overt sweet flavours (pineapple) alonside strong sour ones (tamarind). And to addto the fishy/seafood-y flavours, there's a dollop of shrimp paste added in, as well as a side dipping sauce of belancan-laced chilli dipping sauce. At first, while dissecting the dish, I thought I was getting the compost pile of the jungle thrown mixed with a ladle full of seawater from the bottom of the harbour.

Of course, it's much better than that. After saying goodbye to my French-trained papillae – I'm in Asia, goddamnit - I start to understand. This stuff is absolutely brilliant. Fishy isn't seen as a bad thing in Malaysia, and they have no qualms to push the strong flavours of oily fish over the top. (Given that I'm a fan of bottomfeeders like mackerel and sardines, I'm cool with that.) The sourness of the soup balances out the fish flavour, while the heat from the chillis is countered by the sweet notes of the pineapple. The flavours are so bold and complex make this dish super-addictive – the more I ate, the more I wanted it.

The char kway teow? The video says it all. It had plenty of that "wok hay" - nearly-burnt flavour from a superhot wok that makes Chinese food taste so, well, Chinese.

I've since tasted a few other versions of laksa and char kway teow and I can attest that Joo Hooi is definitely among the best in Penang based on my (relatively limited) experience.

I'm welcome to suggestions from those of you with other suggestions about where is best to taste these treats.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Episode 1: DB Bistro Moderne (Vancouver)

The pilot episode is finally here!

Here forth is the launch of chowonchow's new video blog. Click on the clip and see my quick review of my meal at DB Bistro Moderne in Vancouver.

Before embarking on a 36-hour journey to Penang, I visited my brother in Vancouver who so graicously took me out to DB Bistro Moderne. It was payback, sorta: I took him to Michel Rostang, the restaurant I worked at in Paris, for a full nine-course meal with wine-pairings. So, in return, he takes me to... DB? In his defense, it was a weeknight and he is a family man with two young kids, so the tasting menu at Lumiere would not have fit comfortably in either his nor his wife's schedule, unfortunately. DB it would have to be.

Anyway, the meal was very good. I'm not a fan of branch bistro-outposts of celeb chefs but, I have to admit, this one is a good one. Everything was well cooked and very French – in a very good way. Technique at DB passes muster – just look at my terrine. And yes, I had a bite of my brother's DB burger (= ground sirloin + braised short ribs + foie gras + truffles). It was delicious, even if the truffle flavours were lacking due to the season.

Enjoy the video. Comments, as always, are welcome.

Stay tuned. Next episode, I inhale noodles and try a Penang classic.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A new beginning.



November 2, 2009

KUALA LUMPUR-The management at chowonchow are pleased to announce the resurrection of the blog and a commitment to keep it updated.

The new blog is ready for a full rollout. Old fans will be back for the nostalgia; new ones will be wowed by its sheer awesomeness. Going forward, the blog will leverage new web technologies, with an emphasis on online video, while also keeping the original irreverent tone.

"We forecast triple-digit growth in readership," says Jason Chow, founder of the blog. "Given that viewership was never beyond the low teens before, we think this is an achievable goal...."

I'm blogging in earnest now - for the first time, really – but with a different approach. I'm going to go two-point-oh and be more video-oriented and less of the traditional photo-and-text blog format. My videos will cover my food adventures, from eating at fine-dining restaurants to watching a cook slice up the head of a hammerhead shark (yes, I've got it on camera). Cooks and food nerds take note: I will try my best to include techniques employed by the cooks in the preparation of my food and take you into kitchens as best as I can.

And yes, the dateline is correct: I'm currently living in Malaysia. So, expect many videos of hawker stands, open-air restaurants and sweaty coffee shops.

Stay tuned....