Thursday, July 15, 2010

It's Tea Time

The traditional tea time treats that used to be available mainly at market and roadside stalls and pasar malam are now going big time commercially.

THINK crisp hot fried bananas, savoury yam cakes, apom swimming in coconut milk, melt-in-your-mouth kuih and you can understand why Malaysians look forward to tea time.

Never mind if you don’t have time to make them yourself. There’s plenty of these yummy treats to tempt your palate (and ruin your diet) on sale in every nook and corner. The question of where to go really depends on whether you are looking for a relaxed sitdown with a teh tarik or a quick takeaway.

Thanks to commercialism, there is never a problem with choice. However, authenticity is a real bone of contention and nothing can be more irksome than a ketayap with a meagre coconut filling or a kuih talam that has been artificially flavoured.

Mum’s the expert: Wan (left) learnt to make melt-in-the-mouth kuih from his mother Mak Jah

So how are the best kuih supposed to taste? If you have sampled the kuih talam at the Mak Jah CafĂ© at Jalan Kolam Air, Ampang, you will want no other after that – the white tops of the kuih here are practically sagging from the weight of rich coconut cream.

Better known as Mak Jah, Halijah Karim, now 65, started the business at the end of a row of MPAJ stalls opposite an animal shelter some 20 years ago.

On closer inspection of her seri muka, you will also see a translucent layer between the glutinous rice and the green top. This, explains Wan Mahalel Wan Daud, 38, Mak Jah’s son, is due to the caramelising effect, a testament to the fact that they have not stinged on the amount of eggs and sugar. As a result, the kuih all have a luxurious melt-in-your-mouth feel.

“What I have learned from my mother is that you have to be a perfectionist when it comes to making kuih. My mother believes that a kuih should be rich in coconut milk and eggs. As it is, she uses no less than eight eggs for every tray of kuih,” says Wan.

Though Mak Jah is retired now, this grand dame is still head of quality control and is known to test every tray to make sure that all are in accordance with her stipulations. Those that don’t meet her QC standards will not be seen at her stall.

The issue of being “generous” is a sensitive one. The ones who are guilty of meagre ketayap fillings and airy curry puffs will give the standard excuse of inflation and compromises in profit. But old-timers like Sun Yoke Lan, 55, have different answers.

Going places: Malaysian kuih have the potential to be exported.

“One way to ensure return customers is to make their stomachs remember you,” says Sun who has been running her nyonya kuih stall in front of the Yit Seang coffee shop at Jalan Thambypillai in Brickfields for the past 30 years.

Sun’s strategy is simple. She gives away big portions, be it her trademark steamed pumpkin rice cake or her large deep fried prawn cucur.

Both Halijah and Sun will attest that their kuih business strategy has been tested and tried by time. As it is, Halijah’s kuih is also sold at the Daily Express in KLCC and the Warung in Mid Valley Megamall.

After having kept a roadside enterprise alive for three decades, the question of expansion is bound to pop up for these traditional tea time vendors. In most cases, it will involve relocation, which many believe will sound the death knell for their livelihoods instead.

Thus, most are staying faithful to their original spot, one case being the Mr Chiam Pisang Goreng stall at Jalan Tun Sambanthan 4, Brickfields.

Another is the vadai and curry puff mobile van situated between Jalan Telawi 6 and 7 in Bangsar, which is operated by Kanagaratnam Vengadasamy, who is in his 70s, and his wife Visalatchi Thanugodi, who is in her 60s. They have been there for the last 15 years and the simple reason for their decision to stay put is that everyone knows them.

It is a similar story with the Chiams. After 27 years, numerous mentions in foodie blogs and appearances in food programmes on TV, the most recent one being 1 Day Five Meals which airs over Astro Wah Lai Toi and is hosted by Angel Wong Chui Ling; the father and son team are content with their roadside spot. Never mind that there is no space for the duo to prepare their bananas and sesame balls for frying. The Chiams have opened a preparation room above the shophouse. A buzz from an intercom at the stall will see a basket of nien kao sandwiched between slices of tapioca or freshly rolled sesame balls being lowered in a plastic basket to an eager recipient below.

But modernisation has a way of changing mindsets and now that the current generation prefers the air-conditioned comforts of the supermarkets, it may be time to rethink the issue of location.

The Lim brothers of Homi Chicken Curry Puffs are an example. Having established a name for themselves at the Hock Seng Two coffee shop for almost 20 years in SS2/66, Petaling Jaya, they made a move to apply for a spot at The Gardens Mid Valley four years ago.

With a monthly rental rate of RM8,000, one wonders what gave the Lim brothers the courage to make the jump with nothing but curry puffs as their star product.

Lim Meng Kong, 54, the eldest of the three Lim brothers, reveals that they have had to set up a shop lot factory in Jalan Kuchai Lama, which now produces about 3,000 raw curry puffs daily.

“The decision to expand was like taking the big plunge. There was no business strategy. What we did instead was to take the opportunity as the situation presented itself. It began when my brother, Meng Lee, saw an existing curry puff chain prosper. He thought he could do something better and that was how we came to be here.”

Like the Lim brothers, Lady Luck also had a role to play with Wong How Yong, 54, a kuih supplier who started from a roadside stall at the PJ Old Town market 20 years ago. Eventually, she moved to a stall inside and one day, eight years ago, a Caucasian approached her and asked if she would like to supply Giant, the hypermarket. That opportunity gave her the courage to venture into the catering scene in addition to supplying local kuih to the hotels’ buffet lines.

“It just happened out of the blue and at that time I was still making kuih from my home kitchen,” recalls this former housewife.

Her chief worry then was how she would be able to supply the volume required, but she soon found the solution.

Of course, comfort, convenience and hygiene will come with a price and as Homi reveals, a slight change in pricing was necessary to cover costs. Puffs sold in The Gardens are between RM2.00 and RM2.50 each compared to the ones in their SS2 HQ, which are only RM1.40 each. Still, when one compares the posh contemporary settings of The Gardens to the hot stuffy surroundings of a roadside operation, what is an extra 60 sen?

And thanks to the constant demand for the different varieties of kuih, the makers have had to lean on each other. “It has become very normal for them to sell each other’s products because one factory just cannot handle the making of so many varieties,” says Wong.

This has led to another emerging trend such as that of Deli Delight. A nyonya kuih kiosk in Mid Valley’s basement right in front of Eu Yan Sang, it is run by Theresa Yoong, 60, who has been a familiar face here for the past eight years. Yoong runs a consignment style operation with other kuih and biscuit suppliers.

How far can one go in the kuih business? Nancy Lu, 52, of Lulu Nyonya Kueh believes it can even be exported. She is already looking into this aspect, with help from her brother Tony Lu, 48, whom she describes as “the one with the ideas”.

Since the business started in 2000, Lulu Nyonya Cakes has opened five outlets all running on the kiosk format in Sungai Wang Plaza, Mid Valley, Amcorp Mall, Great Eastern Mall and Jaya Jusco Taman Maluri. And they are also supplying kuih to hotels for the buffet lines.

In the future, says Lu, there are plans to take the kuih business into the gift market, which requires compact and attractive packaging for travellers to take home as presents for friends and family. In line with this, there are plans to work on freezing the kuih, Sara Lee-style, for export. The R&D remains to be done, however.

At such a rate, it will not be long before the kuih lapis becomes as international as the cheesecake. Already, as Lu reveals, there have been enquiries from as far away as Abu Dhabi.

A new touch to the traditional

IT is hard to imagine the popular ketayap as anything else but green in colour, flavoured with pandan and stuffed with a sweet filling of grated coconut and gula melaka. At Ibunda, a Malay fine diner on Jalan Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur, patrons may well see some surprising changes, however.

Here is where you’ll find ketayap with Philadelphia cheese fillings or love letters dipped with roselle salsa all served in dainty portions.

“Malay desserts are traditionally very heavy and with the addition of coconut milk and glutinous rice, it can be very overwhelming after a starter and a main course. So, we decided on a serving that would not exceed 600g,” says Mohd Sofi, 35, the sous chef and spokesperson of Ibunda.

Glamorous twist: The banana pengat coated in sugar

The inspiration is still Malay in origin, he insists, taking Ibunda’s signature dessert, the Nangka Gulung, as a case in point. It was created after the chef and restaurant owner, Zabidi Ibrahim, saw a cempedak fritters stall.

“The whole idea is to be different, to push the boundaries on what is considered the norm in Malay tea time treats. In the end, it is all about culinary creativity,” says Sofi.

Dishing it out with a smile

Nothing makes a dining experience more memorable than great service with a smile. Beauty queen Debbie Goh has it down pat at her new Indonesian restaurant.

SERVICE with a smile, no matter how irate the customer. With this motto in mind, beauty queen and restaurateur Debbie Goh has maintained the reputation of providing good service at her Indonesian food outlet.

The star of Age of Glory, which became the highest rated Chinese drama in 2008, is the new lady boss of a three-month-old Indonesian franchise. Sharing a recent encounter with a customer that had her on her toes all night, she says: “A distinguished-looking gentleman came in with a party of friends. From his manner, I could tell that he was a seasoned diner so I quickly signalled to the staff to be extra vigilant.

Debbie Goh offering her favourite dish, the Yellow Rice Combo, which comes with a mild beef rendang and crispy fried chicken.

“When the food arrived, he found fault with every single dish ordered and even after we replaced it with something else, he was still not satisfied.”

The former Miss Malaysia Chinese International 1998 and a Hong Kong TVB artiste was at her wits’ end and decided that dessert would be on the house.

When it was time for the diner to leave, Goh personally saw him to the door and apologised profusely, certain that she would never see him again.

“Boy, was I surprised to see him again! Later, I found out that he had been impressed by the service and that was when I patted myself at the back for having exercised patience,” says Goh.

As the owner of IR1968, she says that her patience is stretched every day but maturity has helped her keep a tight reign on her temper.

“The onus is on the restaurateur to be tactful and diplomatic. It is your job to find out your diners’ likes and dislikes and then use the knowledge to make sure they have a pleasant dining experience so that they will be back,” says Goh.

In deciding to embark on a career in food and beverage with IR1968, which stands for Indonesian Restaurant 1968, Goh (pic right) reveals that it was her business partner Hudson Chang, a 37-year-old Hong Kong native whom she had met while hosting a culinary programme with TVB, who convinced her to become a restaurateur.

Cosy: Soft red lights and blue porcelain for the table setting mirror Debbie’s artistic touches.

“IR1968 is a franchise and they were the first to offer Indonesian cuisine in Hong Kong in 1968. I was very taken by the concept and thought that it would be a good idea to bring it to Malaysia.

‘Coincidentally, I was also looking into other business opportunities apart from acting, so everything fell into place,” says the Ngee Ann Polytechnic graduate who believes in being hands on in her restaurant.

“One sure-fire way to lose money in business is to be constantly absent,” says Goh who has appointed her 21-year-old niece, Yvonne Chiew, to man the cash register because she is the only person Goh trusts.

She also sees the restaurant as a place to entertain and network, and as such, has taken great pains to make the 120-seater outlet into a cosy enclave with red Chinese lamps, multi-coloured cushions, authentic whitewashed wooden tables and blue porcelain.

Among the restaurant’s signature dishes is the Yellow Rice Combo (RM25), which comes with a very mild version of beef rendang and a piece of crisp fried chicken drummet. This hearty dish is best paired with the Assam Fish (RM38), a spicy and sour concoction laden with brinjal and capsicum.

The specialty of the house is none other than the tender and aromatic Braised Ox Tongue (RM32), which takes five hours to prepare. For those who fancy something light, there are the Shrimp and Corn Patties (RM15) and the Gado Gado, an Indonesian salad made up of bean curd, bean sprouts, cabbage, cucumber, lettuce, potatoes, boiled eggs, prawn crackers and thick peanut sauce.

The restaurant, which is just behind Hock Choon supermarket in Jalan Ampang, also does private catering for a minimum of 10 pax and home deliveries around the Ampang area. IR1968 is located at 241-B, Lorong Nibong, Off Jalan Ampang, 50450, Kuala Lumpur. For reservations, call 017-7883 2160.

Semur Lidah

1 whole ox tongue

For the sauce

3 large tomatoes

3 big onions

3 whole garlic bulbs, peeled and separated into cloves

400g aniseed

4 nutmegs

100ml of kicap manis

Boil ox tongue for five hours. Meanwhile, blend all the ingredients for the sauce with a little water. Heat the mixture in a pan and let it simmer until it thickens. Do not add water. Once ox tongue is ready, slice and sauté in butter. To serve, pour sauce over the tongue.