Friday, August 31, 2012

Handmade Story Cafe

Handmade Story Cafe. I'm not sure what Handmade Story means exactly but it sounds like some signboard you'd read on a street in Taiwan or Japan so I guessed that HSC must be a Taiwanese or Japanese-style cafe and I think I'm right because HSC is quaint, cute even, and definitely young because the owners and chefs are people in their mid-twenties, and the menu offers simple western and Asian dishes.

 I have this soft spot for young people starting out and although the cafe's menu is very limited, I think you should give this place a shot because the owners are very open to suggestions and I always think that food business people should always have that attitude. You wouldn't believe how totally stubborn and defensive some restaurants and cafe owners are. One of the strange things about Sabahans is that they don't bother to give feedback because they are shy/indifferent/really taste dead/afraid of the saliva-in-my-food-next-visit counter action by the chefs. I just went to a kedai kopi today that serves great fish and pork noodles but the floor was littered with used tissues and everybody seemed happy and blind to the dirty floor. I gently told the lady in charge that the place was too dirty and she said they sweep before and after, like it's fine if the place is dirty during. I want to start a new blog called The Blog Of Grouses. It'll be all about the crazy things you see here, like people opening their car doors and spitting, people throwing rambutan skins out their car windows (because the skins are biodegradable/their parents have always done it) and people driving up the road dividers just because the car in front of them is trying to back out. Oh, and motorbikes parked right in the middle of 5 foot walkways on a busy weekday morning. Are we really in the year 2012? Is kk a city or a big kampung (village)?

Anyway, HSC. This review is based on the few dishes I tried a couple of weeks ago, before they officially opened.

The baguette needed to be more toasted and we sent it back and it came back still barely toasted. Btw, Bread Boss next to Damai Community Center has reopened and they have little loaves of fruity bread which I think will go better with peanut butter and bananas. Baguette is too chewy and hard for this combo.

A pretty good bowl of curry laksa but slightly mild in flavor. If I were serving this, I'd give more soup, a couple of good fishballs or fishcake slices, bean sprouts and half a kasturi lime with a small dollop of sambal chili sauce. Perfecto.

Spicy noodles. This just tasted of bottled spicy hot sauce and the serving of mince can be larger rather than just cute. A dish that needs a lot of tweaking.

A small circle of a pizza with a topping that tasted good but the soft, underbaked and floppy crust would be bane to the Italians. Or discerning Sabahans.

If you haven't yet noticed it, the tables in HSC are very rustic and pretty. The tables are handmade from ordinary planks and given a glossy shine, making the place look casual and homey. The tables also give a nice warm backdrop for photography and I was about to offer to buy one when I realised that I should make my son make one for me. They also have the prettiest handmade menu booklets I've seen in KK and I wish I took a photo. 

This was a very dry piece of brownie, so dry it broke up and scattered all over when cut with the fork. I have tasted the brownie at La Fetta and it was awesome and I expected HSC' brownie to be the same because the same people in HSC ran La Fetta.

Better than the brownie but not exceptional.

I can't remember the prices but I think it was regular cafe prices, meaning more expensive than kedai kopi and cheaper than hotels. They may have opened officially by now so do drop by when you are in the area. I hope they have improved on the menu selection and dishes and added to their staff strength. The service was very slow. Parking is a bit of a problem but you can park at the hotel nearby.

Handmade Story Cafe,
behind Yoyo in Damai

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Macanese Minchi

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Macanese minchi, usually eaten with rice and a fried egg..

So a few nights ago we were watching Anthony Bourdain eat his way through Macau  and everything seemed so exotic to me, from the streets to the food to the Portuguese Eurasians. Has Macau changed so much in the five years since I visited or did I not see the real Macau? I bet if you've been to Macau (one hour from Hong Kong, it's part of southern China that was leased to Portugal about 500 years ago as a trading port and returned to China in 1999), you'd have eaten those delicious Portuguese egg tarts and pork chop buns. But did you eat minchi? Do you even know that minchi is Macau's national dish? I didn't. I thought Minchi was a girl I knew back in university; never met her again after we graduated. Hey Mingchee of Sarawak, please FB me if you ever read this!

Yeah, so I thought I knew Macau but realized when watching the show that I have to visit the place again soon because Bourdain made it so different from the Macau I visited. The guy just looks like he has so much fun everywhere he goes, doesn't he? He's the coolest food traveller. Really, wouldn't you rather be him than Zimmerman or Chinn or Smith or Axian? It's not just the leather jacket. Bourdain makes food tasting travelling so...hippy chic.

Macanese cuisine is influenced by Chinese, European (especially Portuguese), Indian and South East Asian cuisines so other than stir-frying, Macanese food is also grilled and roasted. Seasonings include soy sauce, oyster sauce, spices, Worchestershire sauce, tomato sauce, coconut milk (see my recipe for Portuguese chicken) and even a fermented shrimp paste similar to the Malaysian belachan, called balichao.

Bourdain ate a version of minchi with Chinese black fungus. Black fungus are commonly used in Chinese cooking, especially in vegetarian dishes. The more popular version of minchi has potatoes instead of black fungus but of course Bourdain wouldn't choose potatoes over fungus.  Since I love both black fungus and potatoes, and I had no idea what's more authentic, I decided to include both in my minchi. There aren't that many minchi recipes on the Net but from what I've googled, minchi is a home dish and every mom cooks her own version which can be a mixture of beef or pork mince or one of those, potatoes or black fungus (which is either 'cloud ears' or 'wood ears'), and may or may not have cumin or cinnamon or oyster sauce or tomato paste but the basic seasonings are light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, Worchestershire sauce, salt, pepper and sugar. Oil can be veg oil or olive oil.

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Cloud ears are softer and thiner than wood ears. Both are edible fungus said to improve blood circulation and lower cholesterol but I eat them because I've always eaten them. Black fungus has a nice light crunch, yeah, like ears.

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1. Cut about 3 potatoes into 2 cm cubes (these were cut too small) and deep fry them until golden brown and crispy (mine were underfried). For a healthier version, do not deep fry but add potatoes after meat is seared.

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2. Chop a large brown onion and 3 cloves garlic and fry them in veg or olive oil until soft.

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3. Add 500 gm each of pork and beef mince (I prefer to buy the beef and pork and hand-chop them) and a bay leaf to the onions and garlic and stir fry, breaking up the meat.

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4. Fry in medium-high heat until meat has turned white.

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5. Add about 2 tablespoons of dark soy sauce, stirring well to mix.

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6. Add 2 tablespoons of light soy sauce, stirring well to mix.

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7. Add about 2 tablespoons of Worchestershire sauce (less if you don't like the tart taste), mixing well with the meat. Worchestershire sauce reminds me of Mrs Epps, a Eurasian-Ceylonese neighbor who taught me English when I was in Primary 3. I wanted to be like her--cook well, keep a nice house and dress well all the time. And oh, always have music in the house.

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8. Some white or black pepper. Cumin and tomato paste too if like. Season with a bit of sugar.

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9. Add the chopped cloud ears and 3 tablespoons or more of water. Stir well.

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10. Lower the heat, cover for a couple of minutes, checking now and then to make sure the mixture doesn't burn.

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11. Taste and season if necessary. Add the potatoes and dish up. Eat immediately or reheat before serving.

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Macanese minchi.

Minchi is usually eaten with rice and a fried egg and it tastes yummy when just cooked but remember that this is simple, ordinary comfort food. I felt it was an Asian bolognese sauce but Wey said it's a little bit American chili. The next time I cook this, I'll omit the black fungus because the dish tastes better with potatoes, and I'd add more potatoes too.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Alu Alu Restaurant

If you've noticed, I haven't been posting reviews on restaurants in KK for some time now. The reason I've not bothered to do restaurant reviews of my own hometown is because I've noticed something tragic about the restaurants, especially Chinese restaurants. Food in KK in the past year or two has gotten so bad that I go into panic mode when I have visitors from out of town. While the lunchtime fare of noodles is still pretty good (albeit a big drop in portion and quality), I can't think of a single restaurant for evening meals that even rates a 7 out of 10 now. Don't even mention the seafood restaurant that I wrote highly of years ago. The food was great and the restaurant in Bundusan is probably still worth a visit but the one in Asia City is barely edible, with every dish tasting bland and same.

What has happened to food in KK? Why is the food mediocre and pricey? While it can't be denied that food prices have risen and are still rising drastically, restaurants always pass the increased costs to customers AND reduce the quantity and quality of their dishes, thus making more profit than BEFORE the oil price hikes. It's all about profit, that's one damn reason. There's no real passion in cooking for most Chinese restaurants here.

The second reason is that while your bowl of lunchtime ngiu chap noodles is cooked by the restaurant/stall owner or with the assistance of a hired hand, your fish slices in butter for dinner are now cooked by Timorese/Indonesians whose training is limited to firing up the wok and throwing in copious amounts of oil and msg. If you don't believe me, take a peek into the kitchens of any restaurant be it seafood or Beaufort restaurants. Where have the Chinese cooks gone? I think they have gone back to Hong Kong or KL, or to their Creator.

What a surprise it is then when I keep hearing good things about a new restaurant called Alu Alu in the row of shops near Jesselton Point, the place where you can hop onto a speedboat and head for the lovely islands 15 minutes away from the city. I was invited to Alu Alu's food tasting dinner last month but decided to forgo it so that I can remain unbiased.

I first went to Alu Alu about 10 days ago and since then, I've been back two more times. Small meals each time, but enough to get a general taste of the menu. I like the way the dishes are cooked, home style and simple, with little oil and msg.

Meal 1:

Fish balls and tang hoon soup, RM16, was enough for 1/2 bowl each for 4 ladies on a diet. The fish balls didn't have much fish flavor but were tender, smooth and springy. The tang hoon was just enough to give each of us one chopstick-not-so-ful.

Fish slices in butter and milk. They didn't have the ordinary grouper, which would have cost us RM20 only, so we had to go for the coral trout, which was RM32. Let me count...11 small pieces of fish, nearly RM3 each mouthful/piece. Tasted pretty good, would've been better if there was less sugar. I've noticed that there's sugar in most of AluAlu's dishes. I hope that should mean they are not putting much msg.

Fish head with Chinese herb and yam (taro), RM32. I love this, it was yum.

Organic veg, RM16 12. It tasted decent, not oily or loaded with msg but seriously, RM16 12 for this little portion?

The lunch for 4 was RM106. Pretty stiff I'd say, for 4 small simple dishes.

Meal 2:

The fish head taro claypot again and it was yum, again.

My boss used to tell me "Terri, a woman should have some meat on, better to cuddle with." I was once like this kampung chicken, lean and boney. Kampung chickens are for soups, period. Give me a fat corn fed chicken if it's to be steamed with herbs. RM45 for half a small dry chicken. 

Fish fillet with shredded potato and chili. Not that it tasted bad, but to order lutun (king grouper) slices and have it deep fried? VMS, we should've known better than that. Underneath all the shredded potato, it could've been any fish. RM45 for 9 pieces. Yes, I counted. RM5 per mouthful/piece.

The other dish we had was stir fried veggies, bringing the bill to a grand RM167 for 4 dishes only. We all enjoyed the meal but the meagre portions left us running to another restaurant to fill up on cakes.

Meal 3:

Tom yam soup with tang hoon, RM10. The tom yam soup was too sweetish and lacked tom yam flavor. That's all the tang hoon in the soup. Someone I met at a dinner recently said the same thing I'm going to say about the noodles in AluAlu: Will it break the restaurant to just give a little bit more noodles? That amount is ridiculous. 

A bland bowl of 3 fish balls, 2 pieces of fish slices with taro, Chinese herbs and fresh milk--some kind of experimental dish that just doesn't do credit to a cook who cooked that claypot. RM10.

Mango pudding. It was made with either mango cordial or from the box but what do I expect for RM3?

Overall, the food's good (but pricey considering the small portions) and 'healthy' with noticeably less oil than most restaurants. The menu is very limited. There are only fish dishes and that lean chicken and some organic veggies so I think this is good for simple family meals. Definitely not where you'd have a birthday celebration, or some big do, unless you are all fish eaters. Also, I find it ironic that the restaurant stresses on serving healthy food (such as organic veggies) when all the fish they serve is farmed. Farmed fish are fed fish food and antibiotics, according to my friend who knows about marine fish farming and avoids all farmed fish like the plague. The other irony is, farmed fish should cost less than fish from the wild but in Asia the demand for live fish, kept in chemicals-laden tanks, is more important than where the fish grew up in or what it ate.

Now that I've been to Alu Alu 3 times, I know what to order the next time I go there. I'd avoid their fish fillet dishes (pricey), their noodles (bleh and meagre) and their soups (bleh and meagre) and just order their claypots/braised fish dishes (yummy!), of which I've only tried one but am quite sure that the other claypot dishes are just as good. If I'm feeling splashy, I might even order a steamed fish. I have a feeling the cook's Chinese and knows the cuisine. He just needs to be less stingy.

p.s. I just found the receipt in my bag and realized they charged us for TWO portions of veggies. It wasn't any bigger than the single portion I had on my first meal there or I would've noticed. Whadde. 

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Adele By Red

My daughter's latest painting, for those who haven't seen it.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Eggs Florentine, Sort Of

Egg Florentine.

We've been eating poached eggs for weeks now because it's my son's new favourite food. He said poached eggs are way better than fried eggs. Someone's grown up.

Poached eggs used to be harder to make than souffle for me but after many attempts, using many methods, I can poach eggs without feeling anxious. Forget about using cling film (ew) or special egg poachers. Also, don't be anxious. It's just eggs, cheap and easily available. The golden rule is to start with very fresh chilled eggs. Stale eggs have watery whites that will spread out into strands. In hot weather especially, the eggs should be taken out of the fridge just before cooking because a chilled egg is less runny. A good poached egg should have a runny yolk with the white set, compact and rounded around the yolk.

The best way to poach eggs is the vortex method. This just means that you stir the boiling water in a pot until you get a whirlpool. The egg is cracked into a small bowl (easier to control, especially if you are afraid of poaching eggs) and slipped into the calm center of the swirling water. The swirl of the water will keep the egg white from spreading out. A teaspoon of vinegar, said to set the eggs faster, can be added to the boiling water before the egg is slipped in but I've found that it's not necessary although my son says otherwise.

I used to find it such a chore to make Eggs Benedict because of the Hollandaise sauce. Honestly, would you want to make Hollandaise sauce for two Eggs Benedict? What I do now is just thin mayo (Japanese Kewpie mayo is the best substitute for Hollandaise sauce because it has a strong egg yolk flavor) with dairy cream. Sometimes I add whole grain mustard or ordinary mustard. My son prefers to make his paoched eggs and bread with his cream cheese-mayo-chives sauce. It's very yummy and reminded me of Australian brekkies.

The irregularly-shaped egg on top was made in boiling water, no vortex. The two round eggs at the bottom were poached vortex method.

An even faster way with poached eggs is Eggs Florentine which just replaces the bacon or ham of Eggs Benedict with spinach. The spinach is usually blanched but you can serve it raw too. Traditionally poached Eggs Benedict or Florentine are made with toasted English muffins but I made do with what I had on hand, toasted slices of wholemeal bread.

Looks too green for my hub and son.

This looks more appetizing to them, poached eggs on blanched spinach topped with Gruyere cheese and 'Hollandaise' sauce. I find that it's not necessary to grill the assembled Egg Florentine. The blanket of sauce looks rather bumpy because of the lumps of cream cheese underneath.

So, to re-cap:

1. Mix mayo with dairy cream to make a sauce. You can add mustard if like
2. Blanch the spinach, squeeze dry. Or you can leave spinach raw.
3. Crack a fresh chilled egg into a small bowl. Boil a small pot of water. Add a teaspoon of white vinegar (optional). Use a fork or even chopstick to swirl the boiling water fast until it becomes a whirlpool with a calm centre. Slip the egg in and cover with a lid. Remove after 30 seconds, use a fork or spoon to lift the egg off the bottom of the pot if it's stuck, and let egg boil until the white is set but the yolk is still soft and runny. Lift with a slotted spoon onto a piece of kitchen paper to blot.
4. Toast the bread or English muffin.
5. Put the spinach on the toast, top with the egg and cheese (if using) and spoon the 'Hollandaise sauce' over to cover the egg. Top with chopped chives. Serve immediately to happy kids.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Baking Classes

                                      Banana cake with peanut butter cream cheese frosting.

After years of procrastination and excuses, I will finally do what I've been asked by people many times: conduct baking and cooking classes. I've had offers to supply cakes to restaurants, develop new breads for a bakery and teach cake making in a baking school but after much thought, I've decided that I prefer to work for myself at my own pace.

In recent years, big baking schools have mushroomed in Kota Kinabalu. These schools are efficient and business-oriented, teaching large classes in minimal hours. The cakes are commercialized, with many recipes based on ready mixes and additives promoted by baking ingredients companies. I am in no way able to compete with big baking schools nor do I want to compete with them anyway. I believe in the old-fashioned butter, eggs, vanilla and flour kind of cakes, homey and tasty, with as little or no additives as possible. I took my first baking class 23 years ago because I wanted to feed my family delicious cakes made with quality ingredients (that and the fact that I was having a difficult pregnancy and unable to play badminton/move around), and I believe that there are many people like me who stubbornly refuse to feed their family anything less than the finest.

Classes will be small and will be held in a cosy place, not in a shoplot in some busy area of the city. The kitchen will be ready in September but I am planning two tea parties in August where you are welcome to a high tea and a demo class. Just leave a comment on this post with your contact, and you will be invited if you are within the first 30 people to write in. If you feel uncomfortable leaving your contact in the comment, do email me. However, to be fair to everybody, you still have to leave a comment with your name.

I am nervous about posting this but this is it. It's high time I get off my butt and do something I enjoy.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Ramadan Bazaar

Living here in KK all these years, I've never been to Ramadan bazaars. I can't even give the reason why. Maybe it's because my parents never went to any and so we don't know what we miss.

My son Wey has more Malay friends than I do, since he went to an 'English' school, and they took him to the Ramadan (the Muslim month of fasting/feasting) bazaar in 1 Borneo a few weeks ago. That opened his stomach to ayam penyet and kuih muih and he came home asking why we never go to Ramadan bazaars. Since then, we've been to the Asia City bazaar three times and the Lok Kawi bazaar once. I prefer the Asia City bazaar because of the variety and better quality than the Lok Kawi bazaar, which was stinky and dirty and most of the food already packed, with tons of flies swarming around. In the Asia City bazaar too, it was flies galore and that took much of my appetite away. The heat was sweltering and just walking for 20 minutes left me  exhausted and drenched with sweat.

Chicken and beef satay.

Grilled sting rays.

Murtabak. I ordered one and it came covered with a sweet orange chili sauce that was awful.

A chicken curry.

Hinava, a local fish ceviche.

Rojak, a yummy Malaysian salad served with peanut sauce.

This was what we went to Asia City 3 times for. Nasi kerabu, the rice colored blue by the blue pea flower/bunga telang. Chili sauce, raw bean sprouts, long beans, bunga kantan, mint, daun kesom, fried grated coconut, half a salted egg and a mackerel stuffed chili made this an awesome dish of complex flavors and taste.

Laksam, a rice noodle dish from the state of Terengganu.

Ew-looking fish and coconut gravy goes with the laksam. Not exactly to my taste although I will eat it if I'm hungry.

Tempeh (where the hands are) is a delicious soya bean dish of Indonesian origin.

Roti John, something I've never eaten before and refused to try because smell of cheap margarine--I wonder which brand it is--made me shudder and nauseous.

Who drinks ICI paints?

Psychedelic ais kacang.

Unfortunately, these were tasteless because they were made with artificial coloring, artificial pandan extract and either little or canned coconut milk.

Puteri Ayu (Princess Ayu) are little pretty pandan-flavored sponge cakes with a rim of fresh coconut but these were bland, with hardly any pandan flavoring. What a pity that traditional kuihs have now become totally adulterated and awful tasting.

Kuih batik.


The following are photos taken at the Lok Kawi bazaar:

Wey had to buy the greenest ondeh ondeh in the market. The gula melaka inside was sourish, he said, and tasted of cough medicine. Serves you good I said.

Ayam percik. I've tried ayam percik, ayam penyet and nasi katok chicken and found katok chicken the best.

The vendor said this was Johor fish laksa, rice noodles with fish soup. It doesn't have as much spices and flavors as Penang assam laksa but it was tasty.

One more day before Hari Raya and 12 months before the next Ramadan bazaar...
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