Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Killer Dim Sum!

I first heard about it in November of 2011 -- how famed masterchef Chen Xun had been coaxed out of retirement for a month-long dim sum promotion in Guangzhou. I was not able to make that trip, and have regretted it since. It was a meal I would have gladly killed for.

The Guangzhou-based 87-year-old Chen is regarded as one of the greatest dim sum masters of his generation. He is advisor to the Guangzhou Culinary Association and author of many cookbooks.

So imagine my surprise and glee when I learned that the masterchef had been invited to repeat his feat, this time in Hong Kong for two weeks. A few days back I finally found myself seated at Nanhai No.1 restaurant in Tsimshatsui, looking at dim sum that had been served by Chen since the 1940s.

We opened with Steamed Mountain Yam and Duck Web with Bean Curd Skin (right). The duck web had been braised and steamed along with the yam, allowing the yam, which was tied together with string made from an omelette, to thoroughly imbibe the flavour of the duck web. The taste was subtle with a light hint of superior soy sauce.
Next came Steamed Prawn stuffed with Quail Egg (left).  The prawn was minced and beaten into a paste that was smooth and slightly crunchy. The acid test for me was the taste of prawn, which came through with light seasoning. The quail egg also gave a heavier body to the bite.

This was followed by morsel-sized pastry birds, actually Baked Chicken Liver Pastry seasoned with Spring Onion Oil (below, left). The liver was light in taste, unlike the heftier flavour of most chicken liver. The pastry was typically Chinese in style, and a little on the heavy side with a hint of spring onion oil.
葱油凤肝酥 (left), 窝烧鸭脑饼 (right)

The fourth item was unusual---Baked Duck’s Brain Pancake with Cinnamon Flavour (above, right).  Each pancake used two duck brains blended with minced meat. The taste of duck brain was subtle but the texture was unforgettable. It reminded me of tofu but with a meatier smoked taste. My favorite!

When the ha kou was presented, it looked like any other ha kou except for a pronounced red blush shining through the skin. The first bite of the Steamed Shrimp Dumpling with Fresh Tomato (right) produced a light hint of tomato sourness accompanied by the crunch of prawn paste.  But the second bite clearly justified the presence of the tomato paste; the flavor of tomato and prawns is a marriage made in heaven. Yum!

I’ve never been fond of chicken siu mai (below, right), and the only occasion I would eat chicken siu mai would be in Muslim Malaysia, where the use of pork in hotel restaurants is forbidden. But Masterchef Chen Xun’s version was exquisite, the meat finely chopped and marinated with superior oyster and soy sauces. The meat on its own was already flavoursome but the marinate enhanced it even further.
网油牛肉卷 (left),  鸡茸干蒸卖 (right)

The Steamed Beef Ball (above, left) was lean beef hand-chopped, and wrapped in caul-oil which serves to moisten the meatball during steaming. The beef was further enhanced with dried mandarin peel, water chestnut, lemon leaves and coriander. From the first bite the parade of flavours from the ingredients came through, one after another!

The preparation of pomelo skin is always tedious and time-consuming, making pomelo skin as an ingredient a rare treat in restaurants. Masterchef Chen Xun mixed Pomelo Skin with Pork Belly (left) and cooked it until soft. The final mixture was then stuffed into a bun and steamed for about 20 minutes, giving it a refreshing taste quite unlike the usual char siu or chicken bun. Furthermore, the pomelo skin soaked in the oil from the pork belly, while sending hints of fruitiness seeping through the meat.

Two desserts were prepared and served for this promotion. The first was lotus paste coated with flour mixture and sesame seeds (below, right), and deep-fried until golden brown. The lotus paste was light and not too sweet like most Chinese desserts. And the sesame seeds gave a nice bite with a pungent seedy flavor.

The last dessert was my favourite -- deep-fried Banana stuffed with Red Bean Paste (below, left). The combination was refreshing and somehow tasted modern. But the restaurant staff assured me that such a combination had already existed more than 50 years ago.

Level 30, iSquare
63 Nathan Road
Tsimshatsui, Kowloon
Tel:   852 2487 3688


Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Forest – Sam Leong does it his way.

Chef Sam Leong is a friend whose first two cookbooks I’ve had the pleasure of publishing. I was an avid fan since he was Executive Chef of the Four Seasons Hotel, Singapore, and later when he helmed the Tung Lok Group of restaurants.

We lost contact when I moved to Hong Kong four years ago and he quit his post with the restaurant group. But we rekindled our friendship in his newly opened restaurant, Forest at Equarius Hotel, Sentosa, two nights ago.

This quiet restaurant with a seating capacity of more than 170 sat in the midst of green and tranquil surroundings. The interior was cleanly modern with a stylised eco theme complete with green wall and abstract palm tree pillars.

Tuna tartar with
fresh mango in cone
We were first greeted with plum sorbet with cherry tomato and pickled carrot. The chill taste of the plum sorbet left a lasting aftertaste of plum and an acidic sweet effect.

Like a kid enticed with an ice-cream cone, the chill tuna tartar marinated with fresh mango in crispy seaweed, which came after, was bliss. The tuna and mango were like a pair of long-lost twins at a pleasant and heartwarming reunion.

Steamed Chawanmushi egg with pan-seared foie gras was no surprise, but who could refuse foie gras in whatever form?!
Steamed Chawanmushi with
pan-fried foie gras

This was one of my favourites of the evening: I could have begged for more with the first spoonful of double-boiled sea whelk with Sakura chicken consommé. The taste of sea whelk and cordyceps flowers was distinctive and rich. The price of cordyceps has hit the sky and its flowers are nowadays a good alternative. Chef Sam explained that he used Sakura chicken for its low fat content. The tempura sea whelk? I loved its texture but the sea whelk didn’t come through, only the prawn paste.

Double-boiled sea whelk soup & Sakura chicken consomme
accompanied with Tempura sea whelk
Charcoal-grilled cod fish
with sauteed eggplant
Charcoal-grilled honey cod fish was close to my taste buds. I love my fish grilled with a crispy texture yet succulent to the bite. The hint of sweetness flawlessly complemented the slight spicy sautéed eggplant that came with the dish.

The influence of Chef Sam’s early stint as chef in Thailand, and perhaps that of his wife, Forest, who is Thai-Chinese, was clearly evident. The slightly acidic soup balanced with just the right amount of sweetness, brought out the subtle taste of the sea from the scallop dumpling. The big surprise was the dried scallop and prawn stuffed inside the dumpling, which I noticed upon biting into the dumpling, betraying the Chinese influence on top of the Thai.
Steamed scallop dumpling in
Thai-style hot and sour consomme

Charcoal-grilled Wagyu Beef & foie gras with sea urchin
Wagyu beef and foie gras are like the Simpson Twins of haute cuisine. But the touch of sea urchin gave another dimension to the pairing. The rich, cream-like taste and texture actually provided a nice break from the heavy-tasting beef and liver. I loved this surprise combination!

The traditional Szechuan-style mapo tofu with crabmeat was great. The generous serving of crabmeat added panache to this Chinese dish but I found the mapo tofu overly generous for the small portion of accompanying rice. The rice was drowned by the mapo tofu, which was, in turn, too salty to be eaten on its own.
Szechuan-style mapo tofu with crab and steamed pearl rice

The dessert finale didn’t disappoint. The Siam chocolate banana ganache was wonderful as Chef Sam used Thai banana whose taste was strong, yet sat comfortably with the chocolate. The Thai-teh ice-cream and Lemongrass jelly were overshadowed by the goreng durian and chempedak. Durian and chempedak each have strong pungent tastes of their own, yet bringing the two together created an explosion of multi-level taste, texture and satisfaction….. provided you liked durian and chempedak in the first place!
Siam chocolate banana ganache, Thai-teh ice-cream, lemongrass jelly and goreng durian & chempedak

Throughout dinner, Chef Sam and I had the rare opportunity to catch up with the past, present, and even the future. He told me that when he quit his position with Tung Lok, everyone thought he had gone mad for forgoing such a salary and a regional creative post on top of that. But he said that while quitting at the seeming pinnacle of one’s career was always difficult, if you didn’t do it you never will, because you always keep setting yourself a next higher goal. So Chef Sam decided to bite the bullet, and now cherishes the time he spends with his wife and family running his cooking school and his occasional consulting stints. Well, Chef, here’s wishing you best of luck!

Equarius Hotel
Resorts World Sentosa

Sam.leong@forest Cooking School
4A Craig Road
Singapore 089664
Tel: 65-6222 3305

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Old Cucumber Soup is Cool!

It’s no secret that most Cantonese love soup. In fact, the story is told of the exodus of Hong Kongers to other countries just before the handover to China in 1997. Entire families would leave but often the men would stay behind in Hong Kong to continue their business or career. This created a market niche for shops to spring up selling different types of soups to these gentlemen who were deprived of home cooked food.

In my home, we grew up with the custom of having a bowl of soup before family dinner. The ingredients that went into making this soup often cost a third or more of the entire meal budget. Depending on the type of soup, the bulk of the purchase was for pork ribs and chicken. Quite commonly we would put one whole chicken in the soup along with other Chinese herbs or vegetables.

There were soups for different seasons, as we believed soup helped to balance yin and yang in the body. When the summer got hot, we would opt for vegetable soups containing cucumber, winter melon, bitter gourd, etc. And as the weather cooled, Chinese herbs or ‘heaty’ meat such as mutton would used to warm the body.

This is one of my favourite soups for Singapore, where the thermometer seldom dips below 30 degrees Celsius for much of the year. Old cucumber is believed to help cool the body. Other ingredients are added to complement the cucumber; in my family that would usually be dried seafood such as octopus, scallop and oyster, or in this instance, dried duck gizzard. To give the soup fuller body, mix in pork ribs and chicken meat. One tip to note is to always place the cucumber into the pot when the water is still cold and not when it starts to boil, or the soup would have a slightly sour taste.

Old Cucumber Soup

Old cucumber             500 g
Water                          2 litres
Pork ribs                     300 g
Chicken feet                300 g
Red dates                     5
Dried octopus             1
Dried gizzard               2 (or otherwise 10 dried oysters)

1.    Put cucumber in cold water, turn on the heat and boil.
2.    Add the rest of the ingredients and boil at full flame for 10 minutes.
3.    Simmer for another 2 hours.
4.    Season with salt and a dash of soy sauce.