Monday, 23 December 2013

About Hokkien Food 2

This story continued from About Hokkien Food 1

Back at the Quan Xin Yuan Traditional Hokkien Cuisine Restaurant along Jalan Besar, I turned my attention back from my Reservist memories to the current proceedings.

Mr Pang and Mr Fong, both administrators of the popular Best Singapura Makan FB group, were holding court. Mr Pang was speaking, Mr Fong was counting money. On the table beside them were orders of Tong Heng egg tarts.

The two gentlemen could be mistaken as clansmen at an association meeting counting tontine money, but they were generous chaps hoping to introduce more folks to a popular yet underrated restaurant. I couldn't understand why; the food was very good.

Now 'good' - like that controversial novel - has 50 shades of grey, just like a woman who has different competencies in her as a lover, wife, mother and career woman. Cook, even. So when you say ''She's good woman!'' with a two-thumbs-up sign, please elaborate.

The food we had that night at Xin Yuan can be considered very good. By the end of the 10th dish, my tongue was still unabashed and fresh. It wasn't assaulted by too much salt, sugar or other flavourings.

I could literally go for another session. The food, like a teenager's first date, seemed only to be laced with innocence and welcome. It takes skill to cook like that.

Consider the Steamed Pomfret. There wasn't any fishy smell, the sauce was clear like water but somehow, you knew you were eating steamed fish with all the flavours of its condiments. I haven't had something so very pristine in a long while. The meat of the fish was very firm and cooked just right.

Mr Tho, the restaurant's third-generation owner, said one consideration was the weight of the fish. That is really refining the art of cooking down to the numbers. What masterclass!

Another feature of the evening dishes was that the ingredients had texture. They weren't cloyingly wrapped up in sauces nor were they like factory prepared. Most felt natural. An example is the jellyfish in the cold dish. It would be how I think they would taste if I had caught them on an island trip and prepared them there and then. It's like eating fresh seaweed as opposed to the processed ones; - kind of like listening to music unplugged.

Eating the fish maw soup also engendered that feeling. Rustic ingredients harking to a different era, when Policemen Wore Shorts or when pigtails were a fashionable hair statement. Or when moms and daughters wore matching clothes. THAT sort of era!

And that was what Pang and Fong promised at the beginning, that the food we would be imbibing was common during the period after WWII and not cooked like that anymore.

I wondered how kids today will take to foods such as these. Flavours that are gentle on the palate but no less delicious; meats that are moist and not grounded up. Will they think they have died and gone to heaven or will they simply say yucks!

I fancy quite a few will say boring. Most would expect food to be packaged like a carnival that comes with a toy.

The food at Xin Yuan's was really unpretentious and light. Even when the dishes were steeped in spice.

Take the herbal Chestnuts in Duck Skin Wrap. The sauce was thick but not cloying; the duck meat was both moist and firm; the skin was soft and still had integrity; the chestnuts were all evenly cooked. Everything was in harmony. Even the greens (Chinese lettuce) carpeting the dish were fresh. I ate them with the sauce which was excellent. It is nice for once to eat this duck dish that's not overly salty or pungent with herbs. The herbs can be a turn-off for some, especially the angmohs.

Mr Tho told us that in the past, this dish did not contain duck meat. It was all skin... wrapping up the ingredients such as chestnuts, mushrooms, roast pork, cabbage, etc. Because modern health-conscious folks are more averse to fowl skin, the restaurant has decided to use the whole duck instead.

Another dish with thick sauce was the Ham Drape with Chilli Arrow in Ectoplasm (my name), otherwise known as Shi Bao Shi Cai (Four Treasures Veg). This one was really braised comfort food with black mushrooms, beancurdskin cake, roast pork and white cabbage. And slivers of ham, of course. Everything was well harmonised and seemed to have been 'grown' in the sauce unlike the usual "all thrown into one" feeling.

At a dinner like this, there is usually a light meat dish. It came in the form of Lychee Flavoured Pork Ding, morsels of special pork infused with lychee fruit flavour. The pork dings were not hard but chewy and lightly battered, which should be the case. It let the juicy pork speak for itself.

The pork dings were made from meat from the pig's shoulder or back of neck. It has a unique texture and flavour. Very ideal for such a dish, which is better known as Sweet Sour Pork at the local zhichar stalls. If such sweet and sour pork is hard, then Xin Yuan's pork dings are like marshmellows and pleasantly gummy.

And who said Sweet Sour Pork should come glazed in ketchup and sugary syrup. Xin Yuan's lychee pork dings prove that you don't need those at all to come up with a yummy winner!

Its lightness reminded me of calamari. Almost everyone seems to overdo this dish with batter and oil (or butter). In Spain, the squid is ever so slightly floured and pan toasted. As a result, you taste the squid flavour more than anything else. The sea is not lost. So in some sense, Xin Yuan's pork dings kept the porcine flavour intact.

A 10-course meal is not complete without a noodle dish. But what surprised everyone was that the noodles were translucent sweet potato slices instead. They were slippery, they were 'QQ'....they reminded me of dimsum Water Chestnut Kueh, which was similarly jelly-like albeit less firm.

It was probably everybody's favourite dish and we all slurped it up with delight. The noodles came fried with other stuff that reminded me of Soon Kueh. And with the base oil chillied up, it also felt like eating some 'mala' spicy (and oily) dish - all in all, a very mouth-watering experience. Another dish of comparable taste sensation would be Xuan Pan Zi or Abacus Beads - that Hakka specialty. But that one used yam instead.

Another dish that was quite unusual was the Cold Dish that came at the beginning of our meal. It had panfried liver and pig trotter sausage, a specialty of Xin Yuan's. The liver was done just right, bloated like a pillow and not dry nor powdery. It came dressed in its own plumy sweet sauce, but just. It pared down the liver's natural ureatic taste quite nicely without being too sticky. It was certainly not your usual liver doo-dah with wine and ginger.

The pig trotter sausage was something new. Each slice looked like Modern Art with various circles bound together. Or some cell structure with a window into each cytoplast.

In reality it was a few circles of meat contrasted with one or two circles of fat - big and small. In many ways, it is reminiscent of that pinkish sausage in Ngoh Hiang (that sausage and fried fritter dish dipped in gluey sauce). But these slices were bigger and thinner. It seemed as if they were cut from the pig trotter itself... such was its unmistakable profile. Despite its color the meat itself was not pungent at all. I think non-meat lovers would like it too.

As Kung Bak Bao was Xin Yuan's specialty as well, some of the dining guests clamoured for it. The dish was indeed special, with its light fragrant sauce lifting the meat rather than sinking it (usually in a five-spiced muddle). 

The three-layer pork was tender with the skin turned into a firm jelly that gave bite. Unusually, the fat bits were not clumpy; they simply melted as a whole. It's no wonder then that this dish is a 'must-have' clamoured for by residents at every Community Centre event Xin Yuan caters to. An MP was even said to have rearranged the menu just so he could eat the dish first and then run off to the airport to catch a flight.

The surprise addition of Kung Bak Bao turned this into a 11-course meal. The dessert to end the night was no other than Orh Ni, that sticky and oily yam affair with the ginko nuts. By then everyone was groaning, including the lady beside me. Everybody was so filled up with Xin Yuan's traditional dishes thus far.

But Xin Yuan's version of orh ni was not oily at all, something I had feared. It was delightfully pasty and not too sweet. Even the coconut-corn gravy accompaniment was a dieter's dream. One could eat two bowls of this orh ni and not feel "gelat" (i.e. that bloaty and over-eating feeling).

My Reservist mate and runner, Ah Tan, would have liked and recognised this meal. All the dishes were light but flavourful -  not heavy at all. He would have especially enjoyed the Steamed Pomfret which was mind-blowingly simplistic. Truly high-art in food steaming. If the Hokkien can steam fish like this, I think the Teochews better stand up and be counted. Else from now on, I'll ask for Hokkien steamed fish instead, haha.

If I have to rate this dinner, I would give the affair a 10/10. The reason is simple. At the end of it all, my tongue still felt fresh, not like at some wedding dinner where it would have been slapped silly left and right by salt, MSG and what-not.

Even some well-prepared meals will leave your palate numbed from over-invention and fusion-confusion. This Xin Yuan meal was like a nice dream that left one rested and mulling over the nice bits afterwards.

If I had a pork seller's tummy I would have patted it and said, "That will do, Pig. That will do," like what was said in that well-accoladed movie Babe.

Of course, not everything was perfect. The Yam Basket could have seen better "wok hei" (wok heat). This is one dish that, when fresh from the wok, could lead sinners to church - such is the power of yam, celery and cashew nuts. But the cashew nuts in this case was rather plain. Still, one couldn't complain much as the dish was rather delicious despite the absence of heat. 

Even the toasted beehoon bits, often neglected as just a palette dressing for the yam block, was actually flavourful, reminding of a time when such bits were added to porridge. They actually went well with the main yam sauce and I had a rather enjoyable private time eating them. (The rest of the guests did not bother.) Being a beehoon and biscuit man, I couldn't help but smile to myself. (I know it is all rather silly, but I've always believed that food should be placed on a plate for a reason. If not, why waste it? Similarly, the Cold Dish at the beginning also had orange slices laid out at the side of the plate. It gave some of the foods in there a citrus lift.)

I cannot end this report without saying how the folks at Singapura Best Makan (SBM) made this event so enjoyable. Their food comradeship, smiles and welcome made this more like a school trip than adults out on a food trip. Special mention should go to Pang and Fong for keeping everything down-to-earth and bonhommie. This is what friends with a common interest should partake in, and go away with.

Happy tummy, happy spirits and tongues still longing for more.

Ah Tan, where are you? I now know a good Hokkien Food place that you will certainly approve of!

Note: Quan Xin Yuan Restnt is also known as Quan Xiang Yuan Restnt. According to Pang, Mr Goh Kok Siong first proposed the idea but he had to leave for a trip overseas and after that, Fong took over and did the liaison with the restnt, menu setting, etc. A big thank you to you gentlemen for a job well done! :-D

Goh Kok Siong - man who first proposed eating at Quan Xin Yuan. 

Pang and Fong - the two SBM muskeeters and host.

Fong and Mr Tho, the 3rd-generation owner.
Guess what? Pang's birthday and SBM's 1st Anniversary!
Die-die also much come, despite recent surgery! Top marks for dedication!

The Cold Dish. Rustic and with liver and pig trotter sausage.

Fish Maw - chockful of ingredients and old-style!

The Duck-Chestnut Skin-Wrap dish. Smooth, fragrant and well harmonised.

Steamed Pomfret - Utterly simplistic! A masterclass!

Yam Basket - well harmonised too. Loved the white crispy bits in sauce.

Sweet Potato Slice Noodles - everybody's favourite.

Up close - ooh, the 'noodles' were so delightfully squishy!

Xin Yuan's signature Kung Bak Bao - light, fragrant, melt in your mouth!

Four Treasures Veg - otherwise known as Ham Drape with Chilli Arrow in Ectoplasm.

Look at the ingredients. Very Hokkien comfort food!

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