Saturday, 30 July 2011

The Art of Eating in Hong Kong According to KC Koo

Photo by Wilson Fok
His stats would make any blogger swoon with jealousy -- 2.3 million pageviews and counting, and more than 6200 posted reviews to date. His organized eat-outs are one of the most talked-about events in the Hong Kong foodie blogosphere, and his first book Hong Kong & Kowloon Food Attack was launched to crowds of admiring fans at the recent Hong Kong Book Fair. Meet my friend and gourmet extraordinaire, KC Koo.

KC – as he’s called – has plied highways and byways the world over in search of the finest food and drink for more than 10 years, armed with little more than an insatiable appetite and curiosity for all things culinary…and, oh yeah, a laptop and what seems like nuclear energy in his veins.

This 40-something writes, blogs, tweets, tastes, plans and coordinates, nonstop 24 hours. He’s perpetually online, on phone, on road, or on the dining chair. He’s a walking food encyclopedia when it comes to his hometown, HK. Ask for an eating recommendation, and you’ll get the where, when, how, why, how come, how much, if not, and where else, with maybe a recipe or two thrown in! (And did I forget to say that KC’s also a marathoner?)

With fellow gourmet, Isaac Lau, KC puts together his foodie meet-up dinners nearly every night in HK. These have become highly anticipated sellouts; seating may range from an intimate table of ten, to dinners for 100 or more. The selected restaurant for the night would be asked – in fact, challenged – to whip up a special menu tailored to excite the sophisticated taste buds of the attendees, many of who are diehard regulars. An outburst of frenetic debate on the merits of the dinner always follows on the Net the very same night.

The food when I’ve attended has never failed to blow me away; and I’ve made great friends among the many kindred spirits I’ve met. These dinners, and diners, have opened my eyes to the mysteries of Chinese cooking, and helped me fathom its amazing intricacies and depths.

Aside from his blog, much of KC’s prolific output appears on, a leading HK-based food website, and in magazines. In his new 280-page book, KC eats his way across the geographic and budget spectrum of HK, covering the whole territory (not including Macau) and its fine dining and roadside offerings, and everything in between. Each of the 250-plus establishments featured was visited and critiqued by the author himself. The focus is on their individual specialties, and the work is solo, thus guaranteeing the consistency of view and standard often missing from the teamwork approach of other food guides. These are selections culled from a lifetime of informed gastronomy and deep understanding of food.

Priced at HK$78, the book is available at most bookstores in HK. You can get to know KC and his latest eating escapades at

Happy reading and eating!

Saturday, 23 July 2011

A Soothing Respite – Pickled Cucumber with Pork Ribs

This dish, whose origins I was never able to discover, is one I’ve eaten for as long as I could remember. It appears unique to my household, because I’ve never seen it anywhere else: be it home, roadside, or restaurant.

As Chinese savory dishes go, this one is uncommonly refreshing, especially in our hot and humid weather. When the unbearable heat makes you lose heart for a “heavy” dish, try this for a light appetizing alternative. There are two parts to it: pickled cucumber, and pork ribs in sweet bean sauce.

The ingredients are simple, as the dish relies on contrasts and complementarities of taste and texture, laid down in age-old traditions, for effect and seduction. There’s the counter-balancing of sourness with sweetness; in this case, pickled cucumber against sweet bean paste.  There’s crunchy cucumber versus tender pork rib; and, there’s the crisp bright green of cucumber against the dour dark brown of the stewed pork for a satisfying visual flourish.

I’m tempted to think it was either a bored or inspired mind that created this dish… Enjoy!

Pickled Cucumber with Pork Ribs

Oil                               1 tbsp
Sugar                           ½ tsp
Pork ribs                      400 g
Water/Stock                 1½ cups
Salt                              to taste
Dark soy sauce             ⅖ tsp
Caltrop flour                  ¼ tsp, mix with 1 tbsp  of water  (optional)

Pickled Cucumber
Cucumber                    350 g, sliced thinly
Vinegar                        1 tbsp
Sugar                           1 tbsp

Sweet Bean Paste (pounded finely)
Bean paste (豆酱)        35 g, minced
Garlic                          25 g, minced
Chilli                           20 g, minced
Oil                              1 tbsp
Sugar                          ⅓ tbsp

1.    Marinate cucumber with vinegar and sugar for 30 minutes.
2.    Mix sweet bean paste, garlic and chilli into a paste.  Heat wok with oil to medium heat. Add bean paste and sugar and fry for 10 minutes. If the bean paste begins to burn, add ½ tsp of water to prevent it from burning. Continue to simmer until the paste is fragrant.
3.    Increase heat to the maximum, add pork ribs and fry until the meat is brown.
4.    Add water/stock and simmer until the pork ribs are tender.
5.    Add pickled cucumber and marinated vinegar and cook for another 1 minute.
6.    Season with sugar, salt and dark soy sauce.
7.   Thicken the gravy with caltrop flour (optional).

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Buah Jering : Nutty But Nice

I found this fruit not long ago in a wet market in Singapore. I’ve never seen it nor tasted it before. It’s called “Buah Jering” or simply “Jering” in Malay (I couldn’t find an English common name). The Malay stallholder told me that it is commonly eaten by the Malays, and that the plant and fruit is unique to Southeast Asia.

There are several ways to eat it: as a snack you can steam it well, and pop it into your mouth neat or coated with fresh grated coconut. I tried both versions and I preferred the latter as the nut is rather bland in taste. The sweetness of the coconut compensates for the blandness of the fruit.

I also tried it cooked in a stew, and its texture reminded me of chestnut but without the chestnut flavor. I think Jering works best eaten this way.

The Jering is a legume that is twisted into a purplish brown spiral. Apparently, the plant is medicinal too. The leaves are used to cure skin ailments, while the bark would be pounded and made into a gargle for toothache and gum infection. The seeds are large and are eaten to treat diabetes and hypertension. 

Monday, 18 July 2011

Oh my Gourd, it’s Bitter Gourd!

As a child I was prone to “heatiness”, which the Chinese believe results from an imbalance of yin and yang within the body. Indications of this would include a sore throat when I ate chilli and mouth ulcers when I ate durians, and falling sick when I ate mutton stew. 

However, I loved these heat-trap foods, and would indulge myself without the slightest concern for the consequences. My dad was naturally protective of me as I was his one and only child; and while he couldn’t stop me eating those foods (nobody could, or dared!) he would ensure there were plenty of remedies at hand for me.

Somehow, bitter gourd was found to be effective in “cooling” my system, so it frequently graced our dinner table. Incidentally, bitter gourd is known in Chinese as “cooling gourd”. We cooked our bitter gourd in a number of ways -- stewed, fried, boiled. It wasn’t called “bitter” for nothing, and so, I initially hated the vegetable, however it was prepared.

There was, perhaps, only one bitter gourd dish I actually looked forward to: bitter gourd stewed in black bean paste with chicken wings. The dish was extremely popular in the 70s and 80s, and was a staple of restaurants and roadside food stalls. When eating it, I’d skip the bitter gourd and poke around for the chicken, which was extremely tasty bathed in the bean sauce. This dish was one of those that tasted better if kept overnight.

The more often I ate the dish, curiosity and plain old greed got the better of me, and I began taking tiny nibbles of bitter gourd. Before I knew it, I was not just converted…I was hooked. It dawned on me that the bitter flavor was the whole point: it woke up jaded palates and was wonderfully stimulating to the digestion. These days, I like my gourds the bitterer the better!

Bitter gourd’s cooling effects make it a great vegetable for summer cooking. It supposedly improves the body’s immune system too, and is an anti-cancer agent. The Chinese have a nickname for it as well: “the gentleman vegetable”, because it is believed the vegetable gamely retains its bitter tang within itself and avoids tainting the other ingredients it is cooked with!

 Stewed Bitter Gourd in Black Bean Paste

Chicken wings                        3, cut into halves
Bitter gourd                           500 g, cut into wedges
Oil                                          1 tbsp
Water/chicken stock              1 cup
Sugar                                      ½ tbsp
Salt                                         ⅛ tsp
Dark soy sauce                       ½ tsp

Black bean paste
Preserved black bean            25 g, minced
Garlic                                     15 g, minced
Chilli                                       50 g, minced
Oil                                           ½ tbsp
Sugar                                      1 tsp
Water                                     ½ tsp

  1. Heat wok in moderate heat, add ½ tbsp oil and fry black bean paste for 2 minutes. Add ½ tsp of water if the paste begins to get burnt. Add sugar and 2 tsp of water and simmer for 5 minutes. The water should evaporate and the paste should be thick by now.
  2. Increase the heat to maximum; add 1 tbsp of oil, chicken and bitter gourd, and quick-fry until the chicken is slightly brown. Add water/chicken stock and simmer for 30 minutes.
  3. Season with sugar, salt, and dark soy sauce.

There are several ways to prepare bitter gourd for cooking, which are believed to reduce its bitterness:
Method 1:  Marinate with salt for 20 minutes. Squeeze the water out from the gourd and rinse it with water.
Method 2:  Par-boil the gourd in boiling water for 1 minute. Remove and drain.

I usually cook the bitter gourd directly without going through the above 2 methods, as I like my vegetable bitter.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The Epic Quest for Ayam Ketumbar

Steve (who needs no introduction to those who know him) has “interesting” roots. Notice the inverted commas, because if anybody lives up to the label “mixed heritage” -- it was he.

His identity card says “Race: Chinese”; but everyone who sees him for the first time, speaks to him in Malay. He is yellow-skinned; but has uncles and cousins on his father’s side who are kopi-o-colored with tightly curled hair. He has a Chinese full name, while his dad owns a solitary Chinese surname. Steve’s maternal grandma is China-born yet his mom speaks English, Malay, Hokkien, and the Nonya patois, and dresses in sarong kebaya. 

Steve’s dad came to Singapore from Pulau Tikus, a tiny Dutch and Portuguese enclave in Penang. When Steve was a kid, his family lived in Pasir Panjang. In the 1950s to 70s, Pasir Panjang was an idyllic coastal neighborhood of Malays and Peranakans, dotted with picturesque seaside bungalows and terrace shophouses, and home to a thriving Malay kampong. Steve grew up on intimate terms with Malay, Peranakan, and Eurasian cooking. His maternal grandpa was of Dutch descent, and Steve’s father worked for the British Admiralty in Singapore, so European-style afternoon teas and soirees were a commonplace of his childhood, and the aromas from the family kitchen were rich and very diverse. 

Oh yeah, and Steve loves his mom’s cooking. There was a dish of his mom’s that Steve particularly liked, and my attempts to weasel that recipe from his mother brought me up against the full Byzantine brunt of a Peranakan matriarch – with hilarious results.

Peranakan Bibiks are insanely jealous of their recipes, and guard them like a dragon would its magic pearl. Everyone knew that, but I decided to try anyway. So I asked politely for the recipe; it was a kind of chicken sambal. The first few times, Steve’s mom pretended not to have heard me. But when I persisted, she told me the recipe was not written down; it was “in her head” and the measurements were “agak-agak” (Malay for “estimated”).

To further throw me off, she kept changing the dish’s name. It was “Portuguese Chicken” at first, later becoming “Arab Chicken”. So, when, on the umpteenth attempt, I asked for the Arab Chicken recipe, she snorted, “What Arab Chicken; I don’t have that. I think you mean the Indonesian Chicken…?”

I was ready to throw in the towel…she was good. I understood at that moment why Peranakan sons are so enamored of their mother’s cooking, and why they are so tied to their mom’s apron strings.

Years went by, we moved away, and the recipe was forgotten. Then one evening after dinner, during a visit to her home, she pulled out a yellowed exercise book, flipped the dog-eared pages and said simply, “Here it is.” After more than 20 years, the recipe was in our hands. She never explained why; and we never asked.

When we got home and looked at the book, Steve started laughing loudly: “It’s my hand writing!” The prim, childish writing on the pages brought back memories for him, of afternoons after school, spent copying recipe after recipe into that exercise book for mom. “I’ve forgotten all about it,” he said. “…All those years ago.”  

For me, the mystery’s finally over: it’s actually Ayam Ketumbar, a Peranakan dish, but with slightly altered ingredients.



Ground coriander seed           1½ tbsp
Ground cumin                          1 tsp
Ground fennel                          1 tsp
Black pepper                             1½ tsp, coarsely ground
Ginger                                        30 g, grated
Garlic                                          4, minced
Oil                                               1½ tbsp
Onion                                         2, chopped
Sugar                                          ½ tbsp.
Chicken                                      1½ kg, chopped into large pieces
Assam                                        50g, dilute with 2 tbsp of water and drain
Water                                         1 cup
Salt                                             ½ tsp
Dark soy sauce                         ½ tsp

  1. Fry ground coriander (without oil) in low heat until it is fragrant. Be careful as ground coriander gets burnt easily. Remove from heat.
  2. Mix the spices, along with ginger and garlic, into a paste.
  3. Fry onion with oil under low heat until the onion has caramelized without being burnt (about 20 minutes). Add spice mixture, sugar, and continue to fry for 5 minutes.
  4. Turn heat to the maximum, add chicken and fry until the chicken is slightly brown.
  5. Add assam and water, simmer for 20 minutes until the chicken is cooked.
  6. Season with salt and dark soy sauce.
Note: Actual dish is darker; less dark soya sauce was used in the picture so that the chicken would show more clearly.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

What’s a Chicken doing in the Basket?

Growing up in the late 60s and 70s, the neighborhood around Bras Basah Road, Stamford Road, and the National Library was my playground. Things looked very different then: the buildings that stood then are today gone or replaced; and land that was empty then, is today choc-a-bloc with tall buildings.

I spent a lot of the time in the National Library (now demolished), the now-defunct MPH Bookstore, and the row of second-hand bookshops that lined Bras Basah Road. Like nearly every kid of the time, I devoured my fair share of Enid Blytons, Mills & Boons, Barbara Cartlands, and -- perhaps peculiar to me -- Chinese pugilistic novels (at the Shanghai Book Store on Victoria Street).

The little bookshops along Bras Basah Road were especially memorable, in a run-down, cobwebby, “magical emporium” kind of way. They were owned and run mostly by Indians and famous for their huge collections of second-hand books and textbooks. There was no air-condition and the shop frontage was wide open to the five-foot-way. Yellow bulbs lit the dingy interiors; there were wooden tables and sagging wooden shelves along the walls; and all was dust, smell of old paper, and sticky humidity. But oh, was it fun; I spent endless afternoons lost in those bowels! There was a sprinkle of sports shops too, but they didn’t interest me at that young age.

But food was never far from my mind – whatever the age. Who could forget the famous row of Indian Rojak stalls on Waterloo Street with their noisy, infuriating touts? They kept me well and happily fed on many an afternoon. Another favorite pastime of mine was lunch or afternoon tea at the coffee houses along Orchard Road, Bras Basah Road, and Victoria Street.

I remember the set lunches they served of soup, bun, main, and dessert at the then-princely sum of $2.50. Choice of main course usually came down to pork chop, chicken chop, fish and chips, or sirloin steak. Dessert was a choice of jello, cake with cream, or cocktail fruits. That was pretty fancy dining back then.

One of the more “stylo” coffee houses of that era was Red House at the junction of Victoria Street and Bras Basah Road, so-named for its gaudy all-red façade. Others were Skillets at Supreme House (today Park Mall), which was in the mid 70s renamed Silver Spoon. Further along on Orchard Road were the Tivoli, The Ship, and Copper Kettle, popular with both locals and tourists. And, if I felt really rich, I would head for Fosters Steakhouse at Amber Mansion (present Dhoby Ghaut MRT station) for dinner….

Apart from set lunches, I would always look forward to Chicken in the Basket: a common snack in those days which was, basically, fried chicken chunks served with potato chips or sliced cucumber. Its closest equivalent these days is the chicken nugget, a much less spunky dish, but still a favorite especially with the kids.

Chicken in the Basket

Chicken                      200 g, cubed
Salt                            ½ tsp
Pepper                       ¼ tsp
Water                         ½ tsp
Corn flour                    3 tbsp
Oil                              2 cups

Tomato ketchup

  1. Season chicken with salt, pepper, water and corn flour for 30 mins.
  2. Deep fry chicken until half cooked.
  3. Remove from oil and drain.
  4. Once cool, re-fry the chicken until it is golden brown and crispy.
  5. Serve immediately with cucumber garnishing and tomato ketchup.