Thursday 19 August 2010

A Break

I'm taking a break for a few weeks. In the meantime, if you've come across this blog for the first time, there are a few recent posts that I'd like to draw your attention to.

Cha siu
As well as recently celebrating its 1st birthday, the blog also celebrated its 100th post with a guest recipe from 3 Hungry Tummies. I've also had the honour of writing a guest post on The Grubworm where you can read about my efforts at making cha siu.

In recent years, Chinese regional cuisine has taken off in London and whilst Sichuan cuisine has broken through, could the food of Hunan province make a similar impact? Check out what I thought of traditional Hunan cuisine at Golden Day and in its Americanised guise in the form of General Tso's chicken.

I love eating on my travels and I really enjoyed the food in Kuala Lumpur and in Singapore, where I enjoyed the cheap eats as much as the restaurants. Closer to home, The Golden Noodle Awards 2009-10 celebrates some of London's finest restaurants and noodles.

See you in September!

Sunday 15 August 2010

Singapore Part 2 - Cheap Eats

I love Singapore's hawker centres. There's something great about checking out the different stalls and buying a snack or two, as you decide what to eat next. One of the most famous hawker centres in the island state is Lau Pa Sat, which means 'old market' in the local vernacular.

Mixed satay
Lau Pa Sat satay stalls
You come here for one dish above all others, the satay. You know when you're getting close to Lau Pa Sat when you can see the plumes of smoke coming from the outdoor grills. First up bag a seat outside and watch the satay being grilled but try to not to get too close to the smoky grill.

We ordered a combo of chicken, beef, and mutton satay. I thought it was all good although some thought that the honey baste was too sweet. I didn't mind so much as the accompanying zingy sauce counterbalanced the sweetness.

BBQ stingray w/chilli sauce
fried bee hoon
We also ordered bbq stingray w/chilli sauce and a dish of fried bee hoon (rice vermicelli). I really liked the chiili sauce that came with fish; so much so, I stirred it into the vermicelli. My hosts were truly mortified when I told them that in the UK, curry powder is added to fried bee hoon to make 'Singapore noodles'.

We then went inside this fine Victorian building for more food. To be honest, other than the satay, I don't think the stalls at Lau Pa Sat are the best in Singapore. I had trouble finding a decent laksa stall so I played it safe and went with an old fave, a bowl of shrimp dumpling soup noodle (sui gow mein) – a mere S$3.50 for a giant bowl including six plump dumplings.

Bak kut teh is another iconic dish found in Singapore and the name literally translates as 'meat bone tea'. Originally introduced to the region by Hokkien Chinese, there are many different versions of this pork rib broth found across Malaysia and Singapore. I'd previously tried the darker medicinal version but this was the first time that I'd sampled this lighter peppery variant.

bak kut teh
We sampled the bak kut teh at Outram Park Ya Hua Rou Gu Cha located on the ground floor of the PSA Tanjong Pagar complex on Keppel Rd. This was like a hawker centre stall-restaurant hybrid in that it had its own seating – we even reserved a table – but the ambience was very much like a hawker centre.

you tiao (fried dough stick)
I adored the bak kut teh, as the fatty meat fell away from the bone full of the flavour of the 'tea' (you can order lean rib but really what's the point in that?). This peppery version was quite different from the medicinal version I'd previously tried but enjoyable nonetheless. Some of the guys thought that it was too peppery but I didn't mind. I also liked dipping the you tiao (fried dough stick) into the 'tea'.

Whilst the bak kut teh may look like a meagre portion, there are unlimited top-up's of the 'tea' throughout the meal. We also shared loads of different dishes in addition to our individual bowls of bak kut teh and rice.

fish slices in broth
liver & kidney in broth
My favourites included separate bowls of fish slices, liver & kidney, and watercress – all served in broth. Oh and I managed to sneak in a crafty bowl of mee sua noodles! This rustic home-style food was a great counterbalance to some of the richer fare I'd eaten during the course of this trip.

The bak kut teh was my last lunch in Singapore and during the afternoon in the office, my thoughts started to drift to what to have for dinner. Although like many a Friday night, my plans for dinner were interrupted by an excursion to the pub. For a change I was vaguely sensible, as I still had to get to the airport that night. I stopped drinking, said my goodbyes and took a cab to the Maxwell Rd food centre.

I'd already had some nibbles at the pub so I didn't have room for a big meal. I went for an old favourite, chicken murtabak at a stall I vaguely remember visiting a couple of years ago, Hajmeer Kwaja Muslim Food. To the uninitiated, murtabak is a roti filled with meat (usually mutton or chicken), onion, and egg that's served with curry sauce.

This dish was introduced to Singapore by Tamil Muslims and you can't really get it in the UK, so I was glad that I managed to squeeze it in before I left. It was as good as I remembered, the flaky filled roti combining really well with the curry sauce. It was just what I needed before picking up my bags at the hotel. Now that I come to think of it, my last meal in Singapore was a curry after a few beers on a Friday night! Some things are universal.

As I left for home, I realised that there were so many other dishes I hadn't got round to sampling on this visit. In particular, nasi lemak, prawn noodle, laksa, and fish head curry. Next time, I hope there'll be a next time.

Wednesday 11 August 2010

Singapore Part 1 - The Restaurants

I was fortunate enough to be in Singapore recently and I'm looking forward to share with you some of my foodie experiences. In this post, I'll be running the rule over restaurants serving up famous local dishes such as Hainanese chicken rice and chilli crab. For those of you who love food from Singapore's hawker centres, I'll be turning my attention to cheap eats in the next post.

Hainanese chicken rice
What is Singapore's national dish ? A strong contender is Hainanese chicken rice, so it was a bit of a no-brainer when I was asked what I wanted for dinner on my first night in Singapore. I left it to my colleagues to choose the venue, as I'm a great believer in tapping into local knowledge.

I had no idea where I was going to be taken when we left the office and the CBD behind us. Normally, I am intolerant of taxi drivers who don't know where they're going but strangely I took it as a good sign that he got lost. I had visions of being taken to some illicit backstreet chicken rice shebeen.

I was therefore a little disappointed that we ended up on the East Coast Road, about 10km from the CBD. Just how the cabbie got lost is beyond me, as this was a brightly lit main road. My disappointment soon faded when I was told that the East Coast is a great foodie area. As we left the taxi, I could see a row of eateries jostling for our attention. My colleagues then pointed out where we were going to eat and all was well with the world again.

Our destination was Boon Tong Kee, a mini-chain of Chinese home-style restaurants specialising in chicken. This place seemed strangely familiar and then it dawned on me that Su-Lin of Tamarind and Thyme had already sung the praises of this place. That's just bloody typical of Su-Lin, not content to be the first to blog about London's more interesting eateries; she also gets there first in Singapore too !

white-cut poached chicken
We went for their signature poached chicken aka 'white-cut' chicken, which was served separately from the rice that was cooked in chicken stock. The bird was juicy and moist and actually tasted of chicken; it went really well with the ginger paste and the special chilli sauce. One minor grumble was that the chicken soup wasn't served with this dish. That said the rice was that tasty, it probably didn't need the broth.

sotong sambal
Other dishes included sotong sambal (stir-fried chilli squid), deep fried tofu, and stir-fried gai-lan. These were all OK but you only really come here for the chicken. They also do a crispy fried chicken but we didn't try that. By the way, they also sell jars of the sauces such as ginger paste and chilli sauce (I am now a proud owner of both). Highly recommended but try to get a cabbie who knows his way round Singapore.

The other contender to be Singapore's national dish is chilli crab. Whilst Hainanese chicken rice is a dish that originated from China, chilli crab is an indigenous Singaporean creation. In common with Hong Kong, chefs from China that settled in Singapore utilised Western ingredients to create dishes long before the term 'fusion' ever came into use.

chilli crab
deep-fried mantou
The crab is served with rich gravy made with chilli sauce, garlic, rice vinegar, soy sauce, and good old tomato ketchup. Egg is swirled in at the last minute to make it even richer, this gravy demands to be mopped up with deep-fried mantou (Chinese buns). Mixing my food metaphors, this is the Asian equivalent of soul food.

My Singapore colleagues really know the meaning of hospitality and they took me to the No Signboard Seafood restaurant to sample this dish. This mini-chain has a number of outlets and we pitched up at the Esplanade branch but if possible, try and get to the Geylang branch, which is the most atmospheric.

Their chilli crab is renowned and the meat just eased out of the slightly pre-cracked claw. I loved it and couldn't get enough of the gravy, which I ended up spooning into the shell before eating it with the hai-gou (crab innards).

butter crab
In comparison, the butter crab was a bit boring but it would still better most crabs served in western restaurants. They also serve crab with ginger & spring onion as well as white pepper crab but strangely not the more renowned black pepper crab.

cereal prawns
I also liked the cereal prawns, which is another Singapore creation, big fat prawns deep-fried with cereal. I could pick out cornflakes but maybe they were Frosties, as they were quite sweet. Actually, such is the popularity of this dish, a special cereal meal has been developed to be used in cereal prawns (or so I've been told!).

steamed bamboo clams w/garlic
Many of the dishes here aren't exactly healthy so I was glad that we ordered steamed bamboo clams w/garlic. The just cooked sweet clam meat with garlic was a joy. Whilst crab is their signature dish, they also serve lobster, steamed fish, and a wide range of seafood. Another must visit.

Despite most of Singapore's population being ethnic Chinese, the Cantonese community is relatively small. However their influence on the local food scene is massive with many of the classier eateries being Cantonese.

One such example is Lei Garden, the Singapore outpost of a renowned Hong Kong restaurant group. This elegant restaurant is located in the Chijmes complex, a converted convent. Sometimes food in opulent surroundings can disappoint but the dim sum here didn't. In fact it was amongst the finest I've had in ages. Just look at how translucent the har gau wrappers are.

har gau (prawn dumplings)
black sesame balls
This exceptional quality ran through nearly all of the dim sum with the highlights being soupy Shanghai xiao long bao, silky smooth cheung fun, an amazing gingery cha siu bao filling and last but not least, wonderful black sesame balls. Oh and let's not forget the pork and century egg congee that was so tasty, we ordered an extra bowl. The dim sum menu is a bit on the short side but who cares when it's this good. If only London had a Cantonese restaurant of this quality.

PS: I've also been moonlighting and you can check out my guest post on The Grubworm by clicking here. Don't laugh but it's a recipe.

Tuesday 10 August 2010

Happy 1st Birthday

Eat Noodles Love Noodles is one today! I don't want to get all 'Hollywood' but it goes without saying that the blog wouldn't have got to its first birthday without the tremendous support of friends old and new. I'd like to thank you all.

Sunday 8 August 2010

Searching for General Tso

General Shou's crispy chicken, No.10 Restaurant
General Tso's chicken is to American-Chinese cuisine, what chicken tikka masala is to Anglo-Indian cuisine. Whilst not exactly authentic, this combination of lightly battered fried chicken in a tangy spicy sauce with garlic, ginger, and chilli pepper is probably the best-known Chinese dish in America. However, like many things that are popular across the pond such as country music and NASCAR racing, it hasn't really caught on in this country.

I first became aware of this dish a little over ten years ago on a business trip to Hong Kong. My then boss, an American, complained that General Tso's chicken wasn't on the menu in the restaurant we were in. He was also quite incredulous that neither the guys in the HK office nor I had heard of this dish. When I did look this dish up on the internet, I can't say I was that interested in it but over the years my indifference has waned and I've found myself wanting to check it out.

So when meandering around Earl's Court one day, I got quite excited when I spotted the similarly named General Shou's crispy chicken at No.10 RestaurantI would've tried it on the spot but for the fact that I was full. The other thing holding me back was that I wasn't 100% sure that it was the same dish as General Tso's. With that in mind, I made a note of the Chinese name, 左宗堂雞, and this matched when I checked it on the interweb.

I'm also glad I waited, as I realised having never eaten this dish, I had no idea how it should taste. That's when I decided to call in some expert help in the form of An American in London to organise a tasting of the General's chicken. Upping the North American contingent, Krista, Su-Lin and late substitute, Mr A-in-L also joined us.

To be honest, I was a bit disappointed when I finally sampled this dish in that it was like a bog standard sweet & sour with some chilli. I'm also not sure what the hell peanuts were doing in there either. It was as if General Tso had started a fight with Kung Pao and won custody of the peanuts. My fellow diners agreed that this faux-General was a bit of a let down. The search for the real General Tso in London goes on.

Spicy shredded chicken cold noodles (before and after)
What about the rest of the meal ? To be honest, it was a mixed bag. My tip would be to stick to the Sichuan specials at the front of the menu. The boiled beef aka shui zhu niu rou, spicy shredded chicken cold noodles, and sea spicy aubergines aka yuxiang qiezi were amongst the better dishes of the evening. On the downside, we were a tad miffed that the dry fried green beans were off the menu.

Less successful was the Cantonese twin platter of siu yuk (crispy belly pork) and cha siu (honey roast pork). The siu yuk was obviously reheated and too dry whilst the cha siu was tired looking and had far too much red food colouring. That said the gai lan stir-fried w/garlic was well cooked.

Together with rice, drinks, and service, the bill clocked in at around £75 or £15/head - pretty good value. For a similar price, Chilli Cool is superior but still it's good to know that there's a restaurant in Earl's Court that knocks out competent Sichuan.

No. 10 on Urbanspoon

Postscript: There are conflicting claims as to who invented General Tso's chicken. Whilst it is often described as a Hunan dish, it was actually invented in either Taiwan or New York by chefs with Hunan ancestry. For a recipe and a bit more history about the dish, click here and if you're still intrigued, further reading can be found here

Wednesday 4 August 2010

A Quick Stop in Kuala Lumpur

This really was a flying visit. I was in Kuala Lumpur for less than 48 hours before leaving for Singapore. This meant there was only room for three meals so let's start with the best. Soo Kee is a charming, old school restaurant with an outdoor kitchen knocking up Malaysian Chinese food. It's only a short distance from the downtown Bukit Bintang area, where I was staying but at the same time, it seemed like I was far away from the bright lights and the big city. They have two signature dishes. Both noodle dishes. My kind of place!

Shan har mein
'wet fried' beef ho fun
My favourite was the shan har mein (fresh prawn noodles) - these were made with what in local parlance are known as 'medium prawns' ! Medium ? They were massive and I would've loved to see what the king prawns looked like. This was my fave of the night with the crispy egg noodles soaking up the rich 'gravy' that accompanied it. And what gravy! It had been enriched with egg white and prawn roe. This was cholesterol-fuelled death on a plate and just looking at this dish took five years off my life.

The other noodle dish was a 'wet fried' beef ho fun. It may not be much to look at but it was damn tasty and the beef was full of gingery and peppery goodness. They really know how to do their 'gravies' here with the egg white enriched gravy going really well with the silky smooth ho fun rice noodles.

We also ordered some mixed satay skewers (tasty but my photo turned out badly) and on the boss lady's recommendation, garlic chives stir fried w/crispy belly pork. She reasoned that I wouldn't get much opportunity to eat garlic chives back in London so we didn't need much persuading. It was full of crunch and flavour. Yet another winner.

Stir-fried garlic chives w/crispy belly pork
Still feeling a bit peckish, we ordered another one of the boss lady's tips, chiu yim frogs' legs. Well I guess it makes a change from chiu yim (chilli salt) spare ribs and squid that you usually see. The frogs' legs were very moreish and as the cliché goes, did taste a bit like chicken. This dish went really well with the cold beers.

Chiu-yim frogs' legs
If you do come here, don't be too shocked to be greeted by a Welsh bloke called Robert; he's married to the boss lady, Jessica. I also wouldn't bother with a menu, just tell Jessica your likes and dislikes and let her choose for you. I can't recommend this place highly enough and big thanks to my colleagues for taking me here. I liked this place so much; I've even included the contact details, which I'm usually too lazy to do.

Restoran Soo Kee, 14 Medan Imbi, 55100 Kuala Lumpur 
Tel: +60-3-2148-1324

Given the brevity of my visit, you may be surprised that my first meal on Malaysian soil was Japanese. The thing was that I knew I was going to be in the region for a week so there was going to be plenty of scope to eat local food chosen by local people. Besides, raw fish is an ideal first meal after a long-haul flight and I liked the look of the restaurant, Kampachi at the Pavilion shopping centre. I really liked the sushi but the sashimi was even better.

As we were sat at the bar, I took the opportunity to chat with the Japanese-trained Malaysian Chinese sushi master. He explained that the fish at Kampachi was very fresh, as its flown in direct from Japan twice-weekly. He also passed on some tips on how to tell if the fish was fresh or not.

Also at the Pavilion is Madam Kwan's, a mini-chain serving Malaysian classics. I followed many of my colleagues in ordering nasi bojari, as I've never had it before. This I believe is a dish with Indonesian origins consisting of tricolour rice served with a fried chicken leg, beef rendang and assam prawns. I liked this dish but it could've done with more of the tamarind-y assam prawns and decent rendang with rather less of the fried chicken.

For dessert, I went with cendol, which consists of red beans and green 'worms' in coconut milk topped with shaved ice and palm sugar. I enjoyed it but I hit the wall about halfway through. By the way, Madam Kwan herself was in attendance when we went for lunch.

It's a shame my visit to Kuala Lumpur was so brief, as it is very much my kind of town. In addition to the local cuisine drawn from the Malay, Chinese, and Indian communities, there are plenty of international options. These include an increasing number of Middle Eastern eateries that primarily cater for the growing numbers of tourists from that region.

For more on Malaysian food, I highly recommend that you go to 3 Hungry Tummies and Test with Skewer for their 'Muhibbah Malaysian Monday' feature. Each month, they take it in turns to round-up the best of Malaysian on their respective blogs.

Sunday 1 August 2010

Dinner @ Golden Day (Hunan), London

Mashed aubergine with Hunan local taste
Hunan is part of the Chinese spice belt* and its food is typified by being gan-la (dry-hot) in contrast to the ma-la (numbing-hot) of neighbouring Sichuan. Hunan cuisine is popular throughout China and there are many restaurants in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. Following the Chinese Civil War, it also became popular in Taiwan from where it subsequently established a presence in America in the 1970's.

So whilst Hunan cuisine (or a localised version of it) is very common in America, it's very rare in the UK. However, things seem to be changing and restaurants are now starting to appear. For example, there's Local Friends in Golders Green and Golden Day, which is on Shaftesbury Avenue on the site of what was Chinese Experience. It was at the latter that I joined Kake and Bob from the Randomness Guide.

I've previously eaten Hunan food in China but I can't remember too much about it except that I enjoyed it and it was spicy. Needless to say, this was in my civilian days before I took photos and documented what I ate. So it was a real pleasure that Kake's friend W – who hails from Hunan – came along to show us the ropes. I'm not so sure she was as pleased though, as she had to field 101 questions about her native cuisine.

First impressions were good and I liked the fully bilingual menu with pictures, which was pretty much 100% Hunan with the exception of a small selection of 'Greatest Hits' for the less adventurous. The clientele was predominantly Mainland Chinese sprinkled with a few tourists. The interior was clean and modern but in my opinion over lit.

Onto the food and we gave the cold starters a miss and dived straight into a selection of main dishes. I enjoyed the Xiangxi-style dry pot duck w/baby ginger (£15.80), which was presented in a mini-wok sat atop a burner. This dish featured bits of duck (on the bone) and vegetables in a gravy that was lent heat and depth from the chillies and the ginger respectively.

Fielding my questions, W advised that this dish was from the west of Hunan and that the presentation with the burner was gimmicky and not strictly traditional. Mind you that was a moot point, as the burner prematurely extinguished, which meant the gravy didn't reduce, as it should. For all that, I enjoyed this dish unlike The Independent's John Walsh, who doesn't seem to realise that the Chinese prefer their poultry on the bone. 

How a Chinese restaurant prepares fish is always a good indication of its ability in the kitchen. Golden Day passes with flying colours with its steamed sea bass w/home-chilli paste (£15.80). This was perfectly steamed and the delicate flesh flaked off, as it should. The chilli sauce was really powerful and was the only really spicy hot flavour of the night. It should've been a winner but it wasn't, as in my opinion, steamed sea bass and chilli sauce are uneasy bedfellows.

With such a delicate fish, this robust chilli sauce was too overwhelming. I do enjoy spicy fish dishes, like those in Sichuan restaurants but the fish used in such dishes is meatier and has been coated to protect the flesh. That said, perhaps years of eating steamed fish the Cantonese way with ginger, spring onion, and soy has conditioned my tastes, as everyone else liked this dish. 

Of the other selections, authentic sun dried green beans w/pork slice (£8.50) was a home-style dish that had a nice kick to it although we could've handled more heat. The mashed aubergine w/Hunan local taste (£6.80) was presented beautifully with the pestle that was used to mash the aubergine at the table. This silky smooth dish is a must-order for all the lovers of the 'gine genie. Taste wise, I thought I could detect sesame although others thought it smoky.

For sides, we also ordered competently done morning glory w/garlic (£8.50) and some Chef's special fried ho fun with beef (£5.50), which was OK but not as good as you can get in a Cantonese joint. The bill with rice, drinks and service came to £100, which at £25/head was reasonable value. Service was a little inattentive as the tea took a while in coming. Mind you, they did let us linger after the meal, which isn't always the way in some Chinese establishments.

Verdict: Opinions were mixed with little or no consensus over favourite dishes. The Randomness peeps didn't think it hit the heights of a previous visit, although they sampled 14 different dishes that day. W thought it average and toned down, which is to be expected coming from a Hunan native. I enjoyed the food but it didn't change my world. That said there's more than enough interesting dishes to lure me back.

Other Stuff: Golden Day got a glowing write-up from Jay Rayner in the Observer and his review is plastered pretty much everywhere in the restaurant from the window display to the bar. It was so omnipresent that I was surprised not to see it above the urinal.

* – The Chinese spice belt is considered to consist of the following inland southern provinces: Guizhou, Hunan, Jiangxi, Sichuan (including the Chongqing municipality), and Yunnan. Each cuisine uses chillies liberally and in different ways. There is much debate as to who is the ‘Daddy’, when it comes to spiciness.