Monday, 26 August 2013

Surisit Thai Kopitiam – Letting their food do all the talking

17, Lorong Rahim Kajai 13, Taman Tun Dr. Ismail, 60000, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Had to be at Sid’s Pub in TTDI this past Sunday for a short meeting, and since it ended close to dinnertime, we decided to try out one of the shops in that area.

And boy, did we find a good one.


Surisit calls itself a Thai ‘kopitiam’ and I suppose the shop was decorated accordingly. Everything looked clean, simple and utilitarian. A few old-timey pictures on the wall and several rows of Thai soft drink bottles on shelves seemed to be their only attempts at creating an ‘authentic’ Thai vibe.

Also, this cutlery box which doubles as a mirror to check for bits of food stuck in your teeth.

I thought it was going to be a nice, relaxed Sunday dinner… until the food started arriving. Tasting each new dish got me more and more excited, as I rapidly came to realise why they never bothered to do too much with the décor: they didn’t need to. In contrast with the bland look of the restaurant, the flavours they cook up are huge, loud and flamboyant.

The Catfish and Mango Salad is a prime example. Sour green mango, raw onion, dried shrimp, peanut, cili padi, cashew, slightly crunchy powdered dried catfish, all tossed in a salty-sour clear sauce that I am guessing has fish sauce and lime juice in it among other things. All these big flavours are nicely balanced so that each mouthful shakes the tastebuds awake with a big (and very, very delicious) slap to the face.

I am drooling as I type the description for this – good thing I didn’t get any on the keyboard.

The Pork Porridge was a big surprise to me. Normally I hate porridge, because all that watery starch just dampens pretty much any flavour you throw into it, making everything seem terribly bland. But this had a delicious savoury flavour and nice bits of meat in every spoonful. There was the sweetness of seafood broth, small pieces of garlic and some egg as well. The texture was creamy with some added texture coming from tiny bits of still-firm rice.

Don’t let the plain colour fool you: it’s got generous helpings of both meat and flavour.

We were curious about the Chicken Wing Stuffed with Chicken and Shrimp. But as we didn’t want to overeat, ordered only one piece. It was a massively bloated piece of chicken wing, overstuffed with finely minced chicken and shrimp. Quite nice, except the thin outer layer of chicken holding everything together was a little dry and tough. No biggie – the stuffing was what mattered anyway. The sauce tasted like regular bottled Thai chilli sauce with a lot of sesame seeds in it.

Not exactly brilliant or life-changing, but huge, good, and worth a try.

Finally, the Fried Belacan Rice with Sweetened Pork. This one also has lots of stuff going on – pork slices cooked in sweetish sauce, fried egg, raw onion, long bean (which they have cleverly cut into tiny pieces to avoid having spoiling the dish’s overall flavour with a too-strong ‘green’ taste), dried shrimp, cili padi, julienned green mango and a belacan rice flavourful enough to stand up to all those other strong ingredients. Mix everything thoroughly and you get a Thai festival in your mouth with every bite. It came with a sauce that tasted like fermented fish paste – another strong flavour you can add to the party, but one that I felt the dish didn’t really need.

Possibly the best belacan fried rice I’ve ever tasted. Certainly the one with the biggest flavour.

Unlike the food, the coffee I ordered tasted a little watered-down. No big deal, when you consider how great the food is.

 As we got there a little before dinnertime, the place was quite empty. But midway into our meal, the dinner crowd started pouring in and by the time we left it was packed. No surprise after the meal we had.

We are definitely coming back with more friends so we can try their dishes and rice.

Managed to get a picture of the place before it started to really fill up.

Snack-sized review
Unassuming-looking restaurant that serves up great Thai food with big, explosive flavours. Prices are reasonable, too.

Hours: 8:00am to 10:30pm daily. Closed on Tuesdays.

Price: Very reasonable. About RM20-odd per person.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Sweet Hut – 24-carat gold

Sweet Hut SS2, 66, Jalan SS2/67, 47300, Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia

We woke up early on a Saturday morning to watch Mortal Instruments.

If you haven’t watched the movie, good. You still can save yourself the pain.

It’s essentially Twilight: teen-puppy-love-drama-bullcrap mashed up with some supernatural mumbo-jumbo. Just like in Twilight, there is supposedly a secret world unknown to mortals. Just like in Twilight, the main male lead is brooding, distant, melodramatic and androgynous. Just like in Twilight, the female lead has two men interested in her. Only this time, instead of a choice between bestiality and necrophilia, she has to pick either a slightly geeky regular guy (who may soon be developing vampire abilities) and a demon-murdering emo kid powered by angel blood. And she is at least capable of showing more than 2 expressions on her face.

Kristen Stewart looked ecstatic when she found out there’s finally a movie that’s as good as Twilight.

Worst of all, it was over 2 hours long! There are so many ways I could make better use of that time: staring at a blank wall, for example. Or counting the number of hairs on my forearm.

Needless to say, I left the theater at Tropicana City Mall with a bad taste in my mouth.

Luckily, the perfect thing to clean that taste away was nearby, at Sweet Hut SS2.

They serve some pretty decent desserts but in my opinon, the star of the show, the jewel in the crown, the piece de resistance, has to be their D24 Durian Snow Ice.

I go weak at the knees thinking about how good this tasted.

The colour looks a little light, but you forget that minor detail when the thing is placed in front of you. The wonderful aroma of durian assaults your nostrils immediately. Then you take a spoonful in your mouth and the rich, fragrant, addictive flavour permeates your entire mouth. The snow ice is so creamy it felt like eating chilled durian flesh.

The cubes of relatively bland grass jelly were a nice touch. Pop one in your mouth to give your overworked tastebuds a short break before diving into that durian goodness again.

Just a few spoonfuls in and soon the shittiness of Mortal Instruments was a fading memory.

One last thing: This is a new item that’s not on their permanent menu. It might be a temporary dessert that’s only available during durian season. So you might want to go check it out quick!

Snack-sized review
Fantastic D24 Durian Snow Ice dessert that tastes like eating chilled durian flesh. Not on their permanent main menu so go check it out quick in case they stop offering it. Also, DO NOT WATCH MORTAL INSTRUMENTS!

Price: RM9.90 nett for a heavenly dessert fit for kings.

Outlets: There are several Sweet Hut outlets around Malaysia. Get the full list from their Facebook page.

Sungai Petani ice-blended – Hipster ice-blended stalls

Riverside food court next to the Sungai Petani taxi terminal

Yes, hipsters. Because they’ve been doing ice-blended before ice-blended became cool.

Lady Fartsalot just pointed out that technically, ice-blended is always cool. But you’re not going to be a smartass like her, right? Thank you.

Moving on.

There are a total of three stalls at the food court: two facing the river, one facing away from it.

They’ve been doing ice-blended since the ‘70s, long before most Malaysians have even heard of Coffee Bean or Starbucks and their ice-blended-latte-mocha-frappu-whatsits.

Every time we are in Lady Fartsalot’s home town of Sungai Petani, this is one of the places we will visit as many times as possible. Partly because it helps make the typically torturous hot weather in Sungai Petani a little more bearable.

Of the three stalls, our favourite is the one facing away from the river. Their drinks are significantly better, and taste like they have real ingredients in them. Some of the drinks at the other two stalls seem to have been artificially sweetened – so much so that it’s sometimes difficult to tell two different drinks apart.

Just to make sure you don't somehow go to the wrong stall, here's a picture of the one we recommend.

You can get ice-blended drinks made out of pretty much anything they have available: fruits, groundnuts, red beans… even Milo and Horlicks. Here are some of our favourites (with the Hokkien names in parentheses in case you want to order like a local).

Corn (Jagung Kar): Lady Fartsalot’s top choice, which I have dubbed the Cornado. Got Milo sprinkled on top as well. Nice!

Coconut (Iya Kar): My favourite to combat the heat. It’s got bits of coconut in it. Refreshing!

Red Bean (Ang Tau Kar): this, corn and groundnut are the top 3 favourites among customers, but neither of us like red bean so we never ordered this. This particular red bean ice-blended was ordered by Lady Fartsalot's cousin.

Horlicks (Hollick [yep, that's how my Hokkien grandmother would pronounce it] Kar): nice and creamy, like having Horlicks-flavoured soft-serve ice-cream. 

Groundnut (Thor Tau Kar): like ice-blended peanut butter… only better, because it tastes like the nuts have been roasted to perfection before blending.

(See Sua Kar): I offer you 3 translations for this Hokkien name. 

Direct from English: carelessly blended.

Manglish: Simply blended.

Most accurate translation I can think of: Blended with a grand total of precisely zero f*cks given.

Basically, they throw a random selection of fruits in there so it tastes different every time. I love ordering this just for the surprise factor when I take my first sip.

Another one we really like (that we don't have a picture of) is Milo. It's got Milo powder sprinkled on top and is probably the original Milo Dinosaur. It's also tastes extremely close to the Milo you get from the Milo truck.

Our favourite stall also has pretty decent char koay teow (for Sungai Petani). And don’t worry about missing out on the river view, because Sungai Petani (the river) is a nasty, polluted, foul-smelling body of water with a colour that ranges from black to brown to a diseased-looking green.

Don't let this image put you off the delicious, refreshing ice-blended drinks nearby! :D

But seriously, the river aside, these ice-blended drinks are one of Sungai Petani’s signature attractions. It’s a must-have if you ever visit this part of the country… if not for the experience, then at least to combat the scorching heat.

Snack-sized review
Some of the first people to make ice-blended drinks in the country. Can ice-blend anything from fruits to groundnuts to Milo. One of Sungai Petani’s signature attractions. Delicious, refreshing and pretty darn cheap.

Hours: Open during daytime. Go around lunchtime or teatime and you should be good.
Price: Average of RM2 per serving. Some items cost less, some a little more.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Pig Out Café – Home-style porky goodness

A-G-3, Park Lane Commercial Hub, Jalan SS7/26 Kelana Jaya, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia

Quick question to my readers: Which of you are Game of Thrones fans?

Wow. All five of you, huh?

So maybe you share my frustration that the truly good guys of Westeros seem to have the lifespan of a mayfly. You have good intentions, you try to be fair to all and do right by the world… and suddenly you find yourself a head shorter. Or you leave a party with more holes in you than when you arrived. Perhaps worst of all, someone kills your dog.

While the sort-of bad guys seem to live on and on… suffering nothing worse than bruised egos, minor scarring (which, some may argue, adds a macho touch) and missing appendages.

… admittedly some appendages are more important than others.

Yes, I love the complexity of GRR Martin’s epic world and the highly-believable characters he populates it with. And I love how he tells his stories of war and loss and betrayal with unexpected twists and brutal realism.

But I just can’t help but feel a pang when the protagonists I root for are taken out forever.

By the way, it’ll be a while till we get to the food. So here’s Pig Out’s delicious passion fruit fizz to tide you over.

Well, we can’t do much about GRR Martin’s penchant for murdering his characters with seemingly-careless abandon. But closer to reality, we – yes, the five of you and I – may be able to help write a happy success story for some good guys in the food business who are cooking up some great stuff. All we gotta do is eat there often – and there are plenty of reasons to.

Pig Out Café is a brand-new casual-dining place offering up porky delights – they just opened in July 2013.

It’s located at the just-as-new Park Lane commercial center. This place is so new, in fact, that it seems they haven’t quite finished taking off the bubble wrap yet. Only a handful of lots are occupied. Parking is still free, and so plentiful you can park like a complete asswipe without anyone raising an eyebrow.

Visual guide: How to park like an asswipe. Not that you should – remember we’re on the side of the good guys.

The menu is small – I suspect it will grow. The service is friendly. The prices are extremely reasonable. And the food (ah, finally) is the reason why I am rooting so hard for these guys to succeed.

It’s simple, unpretentious, home-style pork dishes… made with much care and attention to the smallest details.

Take their signature roast pork for example. Tender meat, melty fat, beautiful pork flavour without that bad, overly-porky smell. The crackling is just a tiny bit harder than the one on Lady Fartsalot’s MeatMen sio bak but it still has a very nice crunch. It’s an excellent dish, but what put it over the top for me were the delicious and deep flavours of the grilled carrots and potatoes on the side. I really didn’t expect them to put so much effort into their sides. Many bigger and more established restaurants don’t.

So good we had to order a second portion.

Next, the cottage pie. It’s like a porky shepherd’s pie; creamy mashed potatoes and flavourful minced pork combined to make a great light meal. The coleslaw on the side is so good, I’d order it on its own. It was crunchy, tangy and fresh; with a tiny hint of raw onion that made the whole thing come alive on the tastebuds.

I still can’t decide which one I like more – the pie or the coleslaw.

The pork chop was the only item I didn’t love. I thought the chops needed some extra flavour: perhaps more of the garlic sauce it came with, or more a little more time marinating. Also, I would have preferred the meat to be more tender – but this could be just a personal thing since pretty much all of the pork chops I’ve had from Leonardo’s in Bangsar to Ad Hog in Kota Damansara have a similar texture.

Not too hot on the pork chops, but the coleslaw and creamy, buttery mashed potatoes on the side were absolutely killer.

Finally, the pork burger. A thick, tasty, juicy pork patty with enoki, cheese, lettuce, tomato and a little raw onion. The patty had good texture and flavour; I could really taste the cheese; and the onions gave it a very nice kick. The fries were hard and almost completely crunchy. Guess they didn’t use the twice-frying method TV chefs recommend to give each fry a crunchy exterior and soft, fluffy interior… but I still kinda liked them.

A serious contender for best pork burger in town.
I was wondering why they didn’t put the top bun off to the side to better show off the patty, until I saw this beautiful mess. Doesn’t look very pretty, but tastes really good.

Portions are decent for people with normal appetites. But since all 3 of us that day were big eaters, we managed to put away 4 main courses and one pie between us. Pigging out at Pig Out was very satisfying indeed.

What worries me is that the place was empty when we arrived (admittedly close to closing time). I really think there ought to be a queue to get in and the reason there isn’t is simply because not enough people know how good their food is.

It would be tragic to see a great place like this go under simply because of a lack of awareness, while juggernauts of mediocrity like Old Town and KFC continue to grow and grow.

So please go eat there. Tell your friends. Help the good guys win.

Snack-sized review
Great casual restaurant serving up amazing home-style porky dishes at very reasonable prices. Much care was taken with everything, even their side dishes. Go eat there and bring your friends – they very much deserve to do well.

Hours: 12pm to 3pm for lunch. 6pm to 10pm for dinner.
Price: Very reasonable. Most expensive item (their signature roast pork) is only RM18 for a plateful of deliciousness. Until 31 August 2013, they have an opening discount of 20% off your total bill.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Bestari Mamak – Eat the prawn curry!

E-0G-10, Plaza Mont Kiara, 2, Jalan Kiara, Mont Kiara, 50480, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Working in Mont Kiara, I don’t have many options to pick from when it comes to relatively economical mixed rice places. So lunchtime is usually at one of two places: Banana Leaf (sort of a budget Indian curry house that of course doesn’t serve beef) or Bestari (an Indian-Muslim mamak that does).

Service is better at Banana, but there are fewer choices in the mixed rice buffet line and prices are very slightly higher compared with Bestari. So even though the service at Bestari moves slower than lethargic tectonic plates and isn’t terribly competent (they frequently get orders wrong) I still go there regularly because:
1. I like the fact that I have more varieties of food to choose from at the mixed rice buffet line.
2. I personally prefer the flavours of the food at Bestari over those at Banana.
3. This magical, magical prawn curry…

Cue angelic choir.

The curry is mild, rich, smooth and fills the mouth with an intoxicating fragrance. I’ve not encountered this flavour before, and now that I’ve tasted it, I’m absolutely convinced that no other curry will go better with prawns. I want to say more, much more, but I know that my vocabulary is not up to the task of adequately describing how incredibly delicious this is.

Let’s take one more look; maybe staring at it will help me find the words to descr… nope, nothing. You'll just have to go eat it yourself.

It’s not just the curry. The prawns are perfect as well.

Far too many cooks ruin the texture of their prawns by cooking them all the way. This leaves the flesh opaque and tough and not as juicy as it should be.

But not Bestari. Their prawns are always fresh and always cooked just right. The flesh flesh remains springy and firm and slightly translucent. You can feel how juicy they are as you pop each prawn open between your teeth.

It’s one of the items you can choose from when you get mixed rice at Bestari, and it runs out pretty quick. If you want some, you should go there early before the lunch horde (one of whom will probably be me) grabs up all the prawns.

Snack-sized review
Mamak with not-so-good service but decent food at reasonable prices. Nothing to shout about except their mind-blowing curry prawns – a dish at the mixed rice buffet line. Go early before the lunch crowd finishes all the prawns.

Hours: Morning to 10pm. But the prawns usually run out by lunchtime.
Price: Pretty reasonable for Mont Kiara. One plate of rice with prawn curry, two slices of beef cooked in dark soy sauce and some bitter gourd cost only RM8.
Service: Dismal. Sluggish. Forgetful. If you order dishes that are cooked-to-order in the kitchen (such as fried rice and noodles and what not) prepare for a long wait, especially at mealtimes when the place is packed. But I usually just take the mixed rice so this is not an issue for me.
Note: I am writing this based on my experience at Bestari Mont Kiara. There are other Bestari branches where service may be better and the food may be different.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Pictures + Video: The MeatMen’s sio bak + stuff they forgot to mention

First off, nobody panic.

I know it’s a gigantic leap from shaking up garlic bulbs in metal bowls to doing a full-on sio bak recipe. I know many would ‘suggest’ vehemently that if I wanted to play with heat in the kitchen I should begin with a more tentative step… like boiling water in an electric kettle. (And make bloody sure it’s electric and switches off automatically) 

Check, and check. Meet the most frequently-used appliance in my kitchen. Yep, me and ol’ National here go wayyy back.

Most importantly, I know that I should never risk allowing my bumbling enthusiasm to ruin a perfectly good piece of beautiful, beautiful pork belly.

Mmmmmm…. pork belly…

That’s why I’m not attempting this recipe. Lady Fartsalot is.

She is an accomplished home cook who’s capable of making a large and impressive list of dishes. And she’s constantly adding to the list by trying out new and interesting recipes. Many of the inches on my waistline are the direct result of her often-successful experiments in the kitchen.

So now we have someone who knows her way around the kitchen, a beautiful piece of pork belly, plus all the other ingredients. Let's rock and roll!

But first, let's take a moment to admire this nice jar that the fermented red beancurd came in. Pretty good for something that cost less than RM8, don't you think?

Essentially, we (and for the rest of this article, keep in mind that by 'we' I usually mean 'she') replicated The MeatMen sio bak recipe. If you haven’t watched their video, you totally should. Just be warned that side-effects may include uncontrollable drooling, ravenous hunger and the deaths of perfectly innocent but oh-so-delicious pigs.

There are, however, a few points The MeatMen didn’t mention in their video that we felt should be highlighted.

POINT 1: Brine
We cut the pork belly into two pieces and brined one of them. The brined belly seemed a little crunchier and tastier. And it’s easy to do: just cover the meat completely in salted water and leave in the fridge overnight.

POINT 2: Punctures
The recipe called for holes to be punched in the meat but since there are no plans to open up a sio bak rice stall any time soon, we didn’t think it was worth getting a specialised tool for the job. We decided to just stab the heck out of the pork belly instead. We ended up making tiny slits in the skin instead of puncture-marks, but that didn’t seem to affect the result much. And it was quite a lot of fun, to boot!

This is incredibly cathartic. Had a tough day at work? Forget punching bags; stabbing pork belly is the way to go.

Then we rubbed salt into the skin, slathered the mixture below on the meat side and left the whole thing on a rack to air-dry, skin-side up, for 4 hours.

Fermented red beancurd, five-spice powder, salt and white pepper.

We inserted skewers to keep the meat in shape, then it was straight into a 200-Celsius oven for 2 hours.

In 2 hours, the pork skin changed expression more times than Kristen Stewart did across all 4 Twilight movies.

POINT 3: Smoke
There was smoke. Holy crap was there a lot of smoke. We didn’t notice this until it looked like someone had unpacked a special shipment of thick, industrial-grade, pork-scented Indonesian haze in our living room. Eyes stinging, we did some panicked Googling and found out that smoke is to be expected; the fat in the drip pan tends to burn. A little water in the drip pan prevents burning and reduces the smoke dramatically.

Once 2 hours are up, brush the skin side with white vinegar.

Just brushed with vinegar and looking ready to be eaten. But nope, more cooking required.

Now, crank the heat to maximum and put the meat back in as near to the heating elements as possible. Keep an eye on it and pull it out once the skin turns black.

We didn't let this turn all the way black because we were worried about overcooking. So it's more of a Chigger kind of black, no'm say'n?  

The blackened bits were scraped off very, very carefully in order to waste as little of the delicious crunchy skin as possible.

POINT 4: Sauce
The drippings make a good sauce. Lady Fartsalot added a bunch of random ingredients to the drippings: a star anise, some cloves, oyster sauce, dried rosemary (because rosemary traditionally goes well with pork), light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, vinegar, brown sugar and flour to thicken. Then she reduced the whole thing into a nice, Western-tasting sauce. Do note that she had to add quite a lot of stuff to fortify the flavour of the sauce as most of our drippings had to be discarded because it got burnt before we found out about adding water to the drip pan.

The sauce that made me forget about wanting chicken rice chilli to go with the sio bak.

POINT 5: Resting
If you watch a lot of food shows, you probably remember every single TV chef warning you NEVER to cut into a piece of meat straight off the grill. Because if you cut it right away, all the juices rushing and bubbling around inside the hot piece of meat will come rushing out, leaving the meat all dry and icky. Letting the meat rest for 15 to 20 minutes will allow the juices to settle down and stay in the meat when you cut.

Same advice applies here. Don’t worry; the sio bak skin will remain crispy for a long time so you can afford to wait. Also, it seems letting the meat rest for 30-45 minutes will allow the flesh to firm up a little bit so you can cut nice, clean chunks.

So, how did it turn out? Well, let’s watch the sio bak being cut, shall we?

Did you hear the crunch? Isn’t it the most beautiful sound in the world? The meat was incredibly juicy and fall-apart tender. The fat melts upon contact with the tongue. The taste of five-spice powder was a little more pronounced than in other sio bak I’ve bad, but overall the porky flavour was just perfect, without being too overpowering. And the salty sauce complemented the sio bak amazingly well.

The sio bak was so tender we had trouble getting it to stay in shape. Here it is with our sauce plus a garnish of caramelised onions and guava slices, which seemed to work a lot better than cucumbers.

And I ate way, way, way too much of it. So much, in fact, that thinking back to how full I was on that day, I now feel an overwhelming urge to go have a little lie-down.

Think I’ll do just that.