Into Africa: The Giraffe Centre

The highlight of Nairobi for us was the Giraffe Centre, also in the Karen area. It’s supposed to be a sanctuary of sorts for giraffes and also an education centre on conservation. Our visit coincided with a school visit by these super cute little kids.

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The kiddos queued patiently for the platform to clear so that they could all go up at the same time and get up close with the giraffe.

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See how tall the giraffes are! The platform is just under a storey high so they can approach easily for feeding.

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There were three giraffe at the centre, hardly a large menagerie…

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… but just one gregarious giraffe was enough to keep us fascinated. Here he is peering down at us.

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There was a guide giving out the food pellets to the giraffe, and anyone who wants to feed it. The more timid simply stand as close as they dare while watching the giraffe’s 12 inch blue tongue reach out for the goodies.

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This first fella was rather greedy and happy to get really close. It covered my hand with loads of slobber, so I figured I didn’t want to do the corny tourist thing of kissing the giraffe. How d’you do that? Simple. Just place a pellet between your lips and wait for it to come and get it!

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It’s really quick at grabbing the food pellets. Here’s a short vid of me checking if DC got the photo. I didn’t know he was filming. -_-

DC and I are still arguing over who took this photo. It’s one of our favourites of the trip. I like how the greedy friendly one is sticking out its tongue while the shyer one is nonchalantly pretending not to look.

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The shy one did come over in a bit, but was much harder to coax over for food. It took ages before coming over and did not at all like being stroked.

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It was a wonderful experience being so close to these gentle creatures. They were so gentle that DC took one step further than simply being slobbered upon, and put his hand inside the giraffe’s mouth for more salivary goodness. Who knows what made him do that. It was the closest we ever got to giraffes on this trip and we left more thrilled than had we taken a trip to the zoo.

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Giraffe Centre
Langata Rd Nairobi 00509
Kenya

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Into Africa: Nairobi

DC and I were on a very special holiday (I shall leave you to decide what we had to celebrate). We decided to forgo our usual dive trip and go for a safari. Our first stop was Nairobi, Kenya and I was excited to be in Africa for the first time. On strong recommendation from good friends, we stayed at the Fairview Hotel. It was a charming garden hotel on sprawling grounds.

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There was a swimming pool on the new wing, but it was too cold to go swimming. Nairobi being high up on a plateau had a big change in temperature from day to night. In the hottest noon, it hit the high 20s (and I count in Celcius). At night, it could drop to the low 10s. There’s no need for airconditioning here, especially since the weather is rather dry. Even the hottest early afternoon was quite comfortable for us lowland equatorial dwellers that we were in long sleeves most of the time. There was no way we’d go swimming in this weather that was cold for us!

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The hotel also had little apartments, presumably for long-stay guests…

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… and bizarre bronze sculptures of strange mammals. Nonetheless, the garden setting was a lovely rustic difference from the polished 5-star hotels in Asia. If you’re ever in Nairobi, be sure to book ahead as it fills up really quickly. We very much enjoyed the satisfying breakfast buffet, so do make an effort to wake up for that before heading out to safari.

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Before heading out into the wild, we spent a day in Nairobi acclimatising and sightseeing. We went to see the Karen Blixen museum in the suburb of Nairobi named after her. Karen Blixen was a famous Danish author who wrote books such as “Out of Africa” under the pen name Isak Dinesen. I hadn’t a clue who she was and had only vaguely heard of “Out of Africa”. As I walked down the driveway to her house, DC was very excited that we were at Karen Blixen’s house. I, however, was oblivious and was more taken with the pretty flowers on the way!

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And here I am outside her house. It’s a beautiful manor surrounded by old trees and plenty of greenery. No wonder she thought it’d be a good place for a coffee plantation when she moved here.

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See how red the soil is here! Even cacti grow into trees in such soil.

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It was a pity that the plantation failed as coffee somehow didn’t grow well here. Left practically destitute by by the failure of both crops and love affairs, she returned to her native Denmark. The experience was not to be wasted as she started writing about Africa. And then the fame. It’s all full circle now as the whole plantation is now part of the museum and they even kept the coffee carts in the garden.

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What is a holiday without the food? Knowing that the quality of food on safari wouldn’t be as good, we headed out to one of the best restaurants in Nairobi as recommended by Chris. Talisman, like most of the Karen suburb, is set in a garden. It’s very cosy with both outside seating and inside seating by a fireplace. If the weather is good like how it was on the day we were there, do sit outside and enjoy the garden.

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I’m sure if you ask nicely, they’d arrange for you to picnic in the garden too. But we were happy to sit at proper tables and enjoy the good food.

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I had tree tomato juice to start off the meal. It’s quite like tomato juice – a tart yet sweet and slightly earthy version of tomato juice, almost as if a little beetroot was added. DC liked it so much he had more at breakfast the next morning.

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On to the coriander and feta cheese samosas. I was a bit sceptical when the waiter enthusiastically recommended this starter as my idea of samosa involves potato curry filling. Nonetheless, the idea of fusion samosas intrigued me and boy was I rewarded. It was perfect with crisp, light pastry that wasn’t too oily, and rich, oozing cheese coming out. The tomato-chilli jam (not hot at all!) was simply gilding the lily.

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DC had these massive grilled prawns (who knows where they shipped them inland from!) which were fresh and nicely charred from the barbecue. Yummy!

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I was feeling the slight nip in the air (it felt like a beautiful summer day in the UK) and ordered something slightly more stodgy – calf livers in red wine sauce. It was the first time I had calf liver and it was very smooth-textured, not quite like pork liver, perhaps an intermediate between duck and pork liver. It was lovely with the rich sauce and buttery mash. With the weather and food like that, I had these moments of disorientation where I thought I was in the UK!

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This was a gentle start to our holiday with the bucolic charms and great food. More soon!

Western-Style Olive Fried Rice and Other Experiments

I experimented a bit with fried rice by using no obviously Chinese ingredients (aside from the rice itself). There were some pitted olives hanging around in my fridge, some fatty pork slices and a tomato, together with leftover rice. It worked quite well my dried mixed herbs and plenty of freshly ground black pepper, but didn’t taste very western at all. I guess you can’t run away from the Chinese-ness of garlic, pork and rice. But it’s so yummy from the interplay of soft tomato, pungent olive and tasty fatty pork that I might do it again even if I don’t have olives to finish up!

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Ingredients:
2 garlic cloves
20 pitted black olives from a can, drained
1 tbsp olive oil
100g fatty pork, chopped
1 tsp dried mixed herbs (I used herbs de provence, but it doesn’t really matter)
1-2 cups cooked rice
1 tomato, diced

Method:

  1. In an electric chopper, pulse the garlic and olives together till chopped fine.
  2. In a work, heat the olive oil and gently fry the garlic-olive mixture till fragrant.
  3. Turn up the heat and add the pork and fry till no longer pink, then stir in the dried herbs.
  4. Now add the rice and stir till well incorporated, heat through. Add salt to taste.
  5. Off the heat, stir in the tomatoes and serve.

Serves 2 or 3 (i.e. with 2 people you get leftovers, yay!).

To accompany the fried rice, I made some mushrooms braised in red wine. It’s a really simple dish that so luscious and sinful. I normally think of them with German sausages and thickly sliced bread, but they didn’t do too badly with the fried rice!

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Ingredients:

50 g butter
1 onion, sliced
300 g button mushrooms (1 punnet – brown ones are generally nicer)
1 wine glass of red wine (I normally freeze leftover wine for occasions such as these)

Method:

  1. Melt the butter in a saucepan over low heat and sweat the onions gently. Let them colour a bit, but not brown.
  2. When the onions are soft, add the button mushrooms and stir.
  3. Turn up the heat and pour in the red wine.
  4. When the mixture starts to boil, turn down the heat to simmer for about 15 minutes or till the gravy has thickened.
  5. Add salt and pepper to taste before serving.

Serves 2.


Another day, the word “chermoula” kept floating in my head. I’d not really thought much about trying one out till now, and I couldn’t shake it off. Knowing that I had to get it out of my system, I went to the supermarket and picked up whatever seemed right to go into a chermoula. According to Wikipedia, a chermoula is of North African origin. Commonly found in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, it’s a thick marinade or sauce made out of herbs, lemon, garlic, cumin and oil. It’s supposed to accompany seafood and fish, but I used it to top poached chicken breasts instead. It really livened up the plain chicken and added such zing to a simple dinner. For this meal, the poached chicken was accompanied by boiled beans, carrots and fennel, with a side of wheat berries done in the rice cooker. Top the chicken breast with chermoula and crispy chicken skin (20 mins in 160 °C) and it’s a fairly healthy dinner.

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Ingredients:

4 garlic cloves
1 pack coriander (50g?)
1 pack parsley (50g?)
3 tsp coriander powder
2 tsp cumin powder
4 tsp paprika powder
juice and zest of 1 lemon
olive oil

Method:

  1. In an electric chopper, pulse the garlic, herbs, powders and zest with half the lemon juice and a drizzle of olive oil.
  2. Keep pulsing till smooth, adding more oil to help the process along.
  3. Add salt and more lemon juice to taste.

Makes enough for 4.

Cooking and the Lack of Time

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It’s not easy to cook on a weeknight, particularly when cooking for two. The tough part is in not doing the same thing over and over again. In my previous life of cooking just for me, a work night dinner tended to be noodles or leftover rice thrown together with stone soup (AKA whatever’s hanging around in the fridge). With two of us, I realise that DC may not appreciate having random bits of strange soup every time I cook. So I had to think of something different from my default dishes.

One night, I had some leftover tinned sardines in olive oil. Enough to make a pasta for one, but not enough for two. After a little rummage in the larder, I realised that we had plenty of Thai curry spice paste packets. For some reason, only the ladies fingers in the organic section called out to me and this odd sambal dish emerged. It was rich and spicy, reminiscent of the soupy gravy of Penang laksa condensed into a thick sauce and served piled high on blanched ladies fingers. This is so easy it doesn’t need a proper recipe: just stirfry in the olive oil from the sardine tin some chopped shallots, the Thai curry spice paste and some chopped chilli for more fire; then add the flaked sardines and fry till you get a smooth paste. Pile on top of the blanched vegetables and squeeze on some lime juice to taste.

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I put together a quick stirfry of cabbage and mushroom with ginger and miso sauce, and that became my second dish. All I needed to do was to combine that with reheated leftovers and rice I’d already started cooking and we were all set.

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Indonesian-Style Fine Dining at The Moluccas Room

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DC and I took Mr and Mrs Goh out for a much-belated celebratory dinner. We wanted something nice and relatively high class but not super pretentious. So we thought we’d try out Moluccas Room, a newly opened Indonesian place at Marina Bay Sands. Not surprisingly, considering its location, it was decidedly upmarket. There was dim lighting creating an intimate ambience, a great sea view, and jazz music playing (though marred somewhat by the din from the free rock music concert outside). I thought the best part was the thoughtful touch of bag hangers on each chair. Great idea, right?

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Tricia turned up having already having done her research on what’s good here and she immediately endorsed my preliminary order. I started with a selection of their signature satays: the Sate Padang Lida Sapi ($27) and Sate Ayam Madura ($25). As predicted by our sagely Tricia, there were indeed five sticks of satay in each serving. And what tender satay they were! (This fact enthusiastically confirmed by Eug.) Each cube was softly yielding to the bite. The concentrated beef sauce added to the robust flavour. Very good.

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I was pretty skeptical about the tenderness of the chicken satay simply because past experience has told me that chicken satay is generally either fatty and smoothly chewy from dark meat, or hopelessly dry from white meat. This version proved me wrong. It was true to its menu description. Excellent.

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Next was the Ayam Sakura Tangkap Aceh Selada Mangga ($15), which our server assured was very different from the chicken satay. Well, it was similarly tender and flavourful from using sakura chicken. I liked the interesting topping of deep fried basil and curry leaves, plus the slightly tangy young mango salad. It was good, but not super exciting.

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The Otak Otak Jakarta ($12) was decent, but nothing fantastic. Think a slightly firmer version of our local otak, just without chilli. I tried it with their sambal selection which lifted the dish quite well. They have several interesting sambals, of which I liked the aromatic ginger flower and lemongrass one, but none of them were chilli hot at all! Fail!

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Next came the vegetable dishes, which were the weakest link of the meal. Nothing much to write about. Especially not when the fried shallots in the long bean dish were obviously factory made. That was when I displayed my disdainful look that apparently is the best anyone at the table could muster (!).

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And our reward was in the mains. From bottom: Confit Sakura Ayam Tuturaga ($27), Sengkel Kambing Betutu Panggang ($32), and Angus Steak Rendang ($32). I don’t recall much of the chicken dish – it was a very agreeable mild curry with tender (that word again!) chicken.

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And why didn’t the chicken make much impact? It was the lamb and the beef. Let’s start with the lamb first. It was (wait for it…) tender with a thick spicy sauce, somewhat like a rendang minus the heat.

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And the beef? It was top class. The beef itself tasted properly of meat, unlike most steaks these days. It was juicy despite being done medium (a bit cooked for DC and me as we’re usually into rare), and the texture was perfect. It was firm yet easy to chew. The sauce really was secondary. It’s not like the local rendang sauce, being almost like a thin peanut sauce. This dish is worth trying for the meat alone.

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We then had soup, which was a waste of stomach space. Not that it was horrid, just that both the soto ayam and sop buntut weren’t quite up to scratch by fine dining standards. In my mind, soups such as these should either be rustic and earthy with plenty of spices accentuating the flavour of the meat, or clear and intensely concentrated so only the sheer essence remains. The soups here achieved neither. Not that they were bad, it was just like any other version served up at a decent hotel anywhere in Indonesia.

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But this place knows how to redeem itself. We took a risk by ordering all the desserts and were well rewarded. The Kolak Padang ($15) was caramelised pumpkin and banana topped with vanilla ice cream, a bit like a parfait. I liked the simplicity of the sweet flavours commingling and enjoyed the soft textures of the fruit together with the smooth, cold ice cream.

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The Sri Kaya Creme Brulee ($12) was pretty decent – coconut custard flavoured with pandan. I liked the caramel crust that was done neither too thick to be hard to break through, nor too thin that cut the tongue. Alas, the custard wasn’t the smoothest and seemed to be on the verge of splitting, but if I have a creme brulee, I think I’d rather it pandan flavoured than the typical vanilla version.

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The Serabi ($12) was a fluffy pancake topped with sour jackfruit and caramel sauce. It’s very much like the Peranakan apom balik. I wonder how they made the pancake so light and fluffy. It was really good, as the jackfruit flavour was so mild that even I enjoyed it. (No I’m not a jackfruit fan.)

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Too bad the Pisang Saleh Coconut Milk Sorbet ($12) was the weakest of the desserts because of the pisang. It was a firm piece of banana not quite sure what it was doing in the presence of a super yummy sorbet. So I’m going to forget about the banana and tell you about the coconut milk sorbet. My goodness, it was good. Don’t let the name fool you: it’s not just coconut milk in the sorbet, but bits of chewy coconut and sweet, sweet young coconut water. Worth getting just for the sorbet. Alternatively, just order a scoop of the sorbet on its own!

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Overall, the restaurant has excellent starters, mains and desserts. Avoid the soup and side dishes. It’s worth going because it’s probably the only place in Singapore that serves fine dining Indonesian food, and good quality food at that. It’s worthwhile to go in a group and sample the dishes. We later realised that ordering a la carte worked out cheaper than ordering their set dinner. We got more dishes to try too!

The Moluccas Room
The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands
2 Bayfront Avenue 01-81 Singapore 018972
Tel : +65 6688 7367
Opening Hours:
Lunch: 11.30am to 3pm
Dinner: 6.30pm to 10.30pm
info@themoluccasroom.com

Good Eats Along Upper Thomson

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Upper Thomson is an area that I haven’t explored much and I’m glad that recent developments have allowed me to do so a bit more. We had brunch at Meng Kitchen where they specialise in bak chor mee ($4 per bowl). DC thinks this squares up as a top contender for #1 in his books, especially since we didn’t have to queue or wait long even. The noodles were nicely al dente, especially the mee kia. I liked the smoothness of the vinegar, seems like it’s a superior brand compared to the regular versions. I liked how generous they were with the dried sole, but would’ve liked the liver to be less cooked. Pink is the desired doneness, not tough and brown. The soup wasn’t too bad, a notch above the typical longkang jui (drainwater) that’s normally served nowadays.

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Meng Kitchen
246B Upper Thomson Road
Open 24 hours

Next, we wandered round to Salted Caramel to get our fix of (guess what?) salted caramel ice cream. Accompanying it was lychee ice cream, which I felt was too grainy and hadn’t quite enough lychee flavour. The salted caramel ice cream in our double scoop ($5) was top notch, with an excellent smooth texture and just the right hit of salt. I like how you couldn’t actually pinpoint the saltiness, it was simply there to accentuate the sweetness of the ice cream. The strange thing about this ice cream is that the caramel flavour wasn’t that strong. Not every mouthful had the rich burnt sugar taste of caramel. If you told me it was cendol flavour, I would believe you. Still good despite the slightly flavour confusion!

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Salted Caramel
246F Upper Thomson Road
Tel: +65 6753 1718

A Trip to Hong Kong: Centred Around Eating

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After sending DC off to the airport, what else had I to do except meet up with friends and eat more? With Bie, I watched Woman in Black, the horror play, but this time in Cantonese. It was a pretty cool experience considering that it was 31 October and we went to a disused warehouse seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Bie had great confidence in my Cantonese abilities and I managed to catch most of the play. Lucky for me (AKA the chicken shit who’s scared of anything horror), the effort spent in understanding the play meant that I wasn’t really scared when the sudden shocks came in. An interval eating it up at Wo Mun (Watami Japanese Restaurant) and then we went for a Taiwanese movie. This time, I understood 100% of the movie, especially since I got the snippets of Hokkien vulgarities thrown in too!

The next day was a day off before I got down to the business of the trip (a finance conference for networking and talking shop). What better to do than to wander round the eating areas, like Ugh Street below.

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I jest. This is Gough Street in the Sheung Wan area of Hong Kong Island. It’s where the venerable Kau Kee serves up its famous beef noodles (HK$30 or S$5 or thereabouts per bowl).

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Just don’t do as I did. I had the beef curry noodles for some odd reason (here’s looking at you, DC’s colleague!) and it just wasn’t very satisfying. Sure, it was spicy and beefy but there was a dimension of richness and flavour that I felt was missing. Plus, I ordered the wrong noodles. Don’t order chou mein (粗面) thinking it’s the round white noodles everyone else is having, that’s called yee mien (伊面). Chou mein is flat yellow wheat noodles somewhat like Singaporean meepok  (面薄) except made with way more alkali. The yee mien looks like lamian, probably also made from wheat flour. Anyhow, back to the beef itself. I ordered the tendon and meat version, and boy was the tendon melt in the mouth. Actually, there isn’t a great need to specifically order tendon because the meat itself has some tendon-y bits within. I like how the meat was falling in on itself in tenderness and its fullness of flavour. Too bad I didn’t have the space to order the regular beef yee mien, it really did look very good. I’m sure the beef would’ve been cooked perfectly just like in the curry version – so soft and melting. What a missed opportunity.

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Kau Kee Beef Noodles
21 Gough Street
中環歌賦街21號地下,  香港島, Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2850 5967

Thereafter, it was all about the shopping. Just that it wasn’t any old shopping. True to my nature, I didn’t step into the malls of luxury goods but the streets selling dried goods.

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Most of them sold sharks fins, birds nest, and other ecologically unsound dried goods. I was looking for something better than that.

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And I found it at Man Lee Loong. Here, I bought two kinds of Chinese preserved sausages. Not the regular pork or even pork liver type, mind you. I bought duck liver (鴨潤腸) and goose liver sausages (鵝潤腸). Then I spied the century eggs (皮蛋) and knew I had to take some back. I specifically asked for the soft-style ones (糖心皮蛋) and the seller tapped each egg gently to listen for the right viscosity. I have yet to try them out but will be sure to report back on whether these are the same as the famous Yung Kee century eggs. Here’s what the shop looks like, I forgot to take a pic, but this is what I grabbed off Google Maps.

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Man Lee Loong 萬利隆
Des Voeux Road West, just up the corner from Wilmer Street

After a quick nap at the hotel, I returned to the Sheung Wan area with Pei for what she calls the most awesome claypot rice ever. Kwan Kee is one of those slightly dodgy hole in the wall places where even though you make a reservation, you still need to wait patiently. The staff look like they’re all family and have a gruff yet friendly nature that they turn on and off capriciously. When Pei asked when we’ll get our seat (it was 10 minutes after our reservation time – we’d arrived early even), the response was a curt 睇到哩, 出邊等啦. Essentially, “we know, just wait outside like good kids”. Yet when we dithered over which dishes to order, a sin that’s just ripe for being scolded since we’d spent so much time outside perusing the menu, they were patient and friendly about it.

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Maybe the sheer number of dishes us two girls ordered was enough to convince them to be nice to us. We started with sweet and sour pork, a decent rendition that Pei likes a lot. I like mine crispier, like the version done in Singapore at the Bencoolen Fatty Weng branch. Here, the focus was more on chewing the meat off the soft pork bones and enjoying the pleasing contrast of sharp-sweet sauce with savoury meat.

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The empress chicken (貴妃雞) was the best I’ve had in a long, long while. In essence, it’s a very simple dish of steamed chicken with the skin dried off then patted with salt, and served with a beautiful ginger dipping sauce. The chicken was well-seasoned and tender. They used proper chicken here, chicken that tastes of chicken – look at how yellow the skin was. Then the ginger sauce, my gosh it was good. First the gingered oil smoothens the tongue, then there are little sparkles of salt and the mild spiciness (not even heat) of the ginger and spring onion. All that accentuating the tender chicken and its skin so incredibly well. I could’ve stopped my dinner at this point and been happy, but there were other dishes to try!

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The clams made up a star dish that Pei really recommends. The problem was that we went on a Monday night and they weren’t as fresh as I’d like them to be. Still, not a great deal to complain about since none of the clams were off, just a bit past their prime. I liked the straightforward black bean and capsicum sauce that was just begging for white rice to go with it.

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We didn’t have white rice with our meal. Instead, something better – two types of claypot rice. The first one was the mixed preserved meat rice (燒臘煲飯) which arrived piping hot with a small bowlful of soy sauce. The trick is to pour in the soy sauce straightaway so it combines with the rice to form a crisp burnt rice layer (飯燋) at the bottom. Pei and I had an agreement that I’ll eat the liver sausages and the preserved belly pork, and she’ll have the regular sausages. It was a fine arrangement, such a pity we’re rarely in the same country given our complementary preferences. I wasn’t super keen about the big, coarse pieces they sliced the sausages into because I like having smaller slices so they catch slightly against the bottom of the claypot for the lovely burnt flavour. What I did like was the preserved belly pork – it had plenty of sweetness and of course full of fat, so full of fat that I had to discard the truly fatty bits. And then the rice, the stuff from the centre of the pot was perfectly al dente and slightly chewy, and there was ample crispy burnt rice to please the both of us girls. Oh yes there was also a vegetable dish, one must have vegetables to round off a meal. We had a well executed and very generous portion of yau mut choi stir fried with preserved tofu (油麥菜炒腐乳).

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And the last claypot came in – chicken and white eel claypot rice (滑雞白鱔煲飯). While not quite as classic as preserved sausage claypot rice, this was by far the better version. Look, I was so greedy to get at it that I didn’t even wait for the steam to clear. The eel was unctuously melt-in-the-mouth and gave a lovely rich, slightly fishy (in a good way) flavour to the heavenly combination of black beans, soy, and al dente plus crispy rice. Just beware the bones, there’s a technique to eating each piece. Be careful not to dislodge the radial bones from the central bone of each little steak of eel and you’re fine.

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By then, our neighbours at the next table had finished ogling our food and wondering how we’d fit it all in. They’d moved on to better things in life, like ordering their food. No surprise that the dishes were exactly the same as ours, except for 4! Total spend for what would’ve fed 4 people or 2 greedy girls? HK$300 or S$50. Not bad for a blowout meal, eh?

Kwan Kee Restaurant 坤记煲仔饭
G/F, Wo Yick Building, 263 Queen’s Road West, Western District
(Really at Kwai Heung Street, if you go by taxi ask the driver to stop at the McDonalds)
香港西環皇后大道西263號和益大廈地下 (桂香街內)
+852 2803 7209