Friday, September 12, 2014

RETURN OF CHEF DEBBIE TEOH

To know Malaysia is to dine in Malaysia...in line with Visit Malaysia Year 2014, this is your chance to romance the halcyon days of Straits Chinese cuisine through Chatz Brasserie's Best of Malaysia: Nyonya Cuisine by Chef Debbie Teoh promotion.
We were lucky to get a sneak preview of what Malaysia's Queen of Nyonya cuisine will be serving up at ParkRoyal KL. Featuring almost extinct recipes such as Kuih Bongkong and Pais Buah Keluak, diners can be sure they'd be in for some authentic treats for the promo which takes place every Friday & Saturday night for dinner and weekend high tea from now until 12 October.
Debbie herself would be holed up in the hotel to personally prepare the various dishes; a mean feat in itself as Nyonya specialities are notoriously time-consuming and labour-intensive to prepare and cook. True to her Straits Chinese background, the lady has even unearthed some long-lost and almost extinct recipes to showcase for this promotion.

I had a dose of nostalgia when I tasted her soul-warming Hu Pio Soup (pix above of fish stomach soup). Light and clear on the palate, the textural interest came from spongy pieces of deep-fried fish stomach and the unexpected inclusion of two fresh prawn dumplings. Flecks of deep-fried garlic added a sublime deep-bodied flavour which saw us slurping everything up to the last drop.

Debbie's next labour of love was Nasi Ulam - a rice salad of sorts that's heavy on turmeric and assorted local herbs: finely cut shallot, turmeric leaves, bird's eye chilli and lemongrass among others. A really painstaking dish to prep as I have attempted to make it in the past.
One rare dish we sampled was Pais Buah Keluak (RM30 for 2 pcs; served a la carte). This steamed fish meat in banana leaf parcel is similar to its spicier counterpart known as Otak-otak but instead of ground spices, the fish is mixed with that mysterious black nut from Indonesia, giving the ensemble a faint ashy-bitter chocolate nuances. Some diners may find this speciality an acquired taste but it's recommended you should sample it at least once.
Once you go black, you can't go back - Buah Keluak is addictive once you gain a penchant for it
Dark and mysterious with vein-like streaks, this tough nut (pix above) is really a seed from  or the Kepayang (Pangium edule), a mangrove swamp tree. According to Wikipedia, the raw seeds are as poisonous as cyanide. They have to be boiled and buried in ash, banana leaves and earth for forty days; turning the creamy white nuts to dark brown or black. The hard and bitter kernel inside is an essential ingredient in the preparation of Ayam Buah Keluak, another typical Nyonya dish.
Those of us who enjoyed buah keluak couldn't resist digging in and scooping up the dark, creamy paste within. The richly spicy chicken was tender and thoroughly suffused with its unique nuance which Debbie dubbed as Peranakan truffles.
 
Penang Perut Ikan (pix above) is yet another almost extinct delight that you'd be hard pressed to find in today's Nyonya restaurants. Debbie's sterling version had that vivid melding of savoury, sweet, sour, and spicy accents that completely erased the disappointing versions I have had in the past. One can eat loads of rice accompanied by this dish alone; in order to appreciate the melange of finely shredded herbs, vegetables and pickled fish stomach fully.
From her maternal Melakan side, Debbie proffered a rich, thick Ayam Pongteh, chicken stewed with taucheo (salty fermented soy beans) and gula melaka (dark palm sugar). Again it is a comforting offering that goes best with plain white rice.
A Nyonya feast cannot be relished without rice; not when there are irresistible, appetite-whetting servings of Gulai Kiam Hu Kut or Curried Salted Fish Bones. Unabashedly creamy with a muted brininess, the splendid curry drew rave reviews all around as we drenched our rice with the piquant gravy.

Complementing the heartier dishes is Kerabu Jantung Pisang with Prawns - a scrumptious creation that warms the cockles of our hearts with the use of the humble banana flower 'heart' (the equivalent of the Asian artichoke). Up until now, we have always encountered it in kerabu (local salad that consists of the finely chopped heart of the banana flower and tossed with chilli, toasted grated coconut and shallot). Needless to say, it was another huge hit as the zesty chilli and spice notes set our tastebuds tingling with pleasure.
Even the usual grilled fish was given a fresh twist. The celeb chef served the grilled fleshy stingray with an almost forgotten sauce concocted from kalamansi lime juice, pounded chilli and sliced onion, calling it Fish Panggang with Lum Chut Sauce.
For high tea, expect delectable nibbles and kuihs galore. Top pick includes the delicious Rempah Udang, an old-school treat comprising grilled tubular parcels of glutinous rice with a subtly spicy filling of pounded dried shrimp with grated coconut. The rice is stained a pretty blue using the juice of pea flowers.
Kuih Bongkong...a light teaser that's sweet and slightly custardy drenched with melted palm sugar
Kuih Bongkong and Sweet Potato Kasui are superb throwbacks to the era where familial matriarchs reigned supreme and would outdo each other with colourful and tempting array of kuih-muihs; sweet cakes made mostly from glutinous or rice flour, palm sugar, grated coconut or coconut milk and literally anything and everything that's locally grown and freshly available in abundance.Most are usually steamed although there are also selected grilled or fried kuihs.
Again Debbie has stayed true to her roots in making these traditional treats, with the only concession being the amount of sugar used is much less now. The two dessert we savoured were to-die-for with no seconds in sight.
To complement the meal, we were served two healthy refreshing drinks: Serai (lemongrass) and Kedondong (a tropical sour, fibrous plum-like fruit known as Spondalis dulcis).

The Best of Malaysia: Nyonya Cuisine by Chef Debbie Teoh is available for Friday & Saturday dinner buffet at RM125 nett per person and Sat & Sun high tea buffet at RM78 nett per person. Cooking enthusiasts can pick up tips and tricks on Nyonya cooking from the celebrity chef herself during High Tea on Sun (prior seat reservation required).

For reservations, call Chatz Brasserie, tel: 03 - 2147 0088.

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