Crab Biriyani at Heritage Bites

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DC and I took his parents out for Indian. We’d heard about the crab biriyani at Heritage Bites and were very eager to try it out. The restaurant itself has a very understated decor – modern with Indian touches. Its simple layout adds to the spaciousness and helps in getting the attention of the waitstaff. DC started off with a jaljeera, a drink with mint, lime, cumin and chilli. I liked the crispy bits floating at the top, they stayed crispy throughout, which is quite amazing considering it’s soaking in the drink. What I didn’t like was the drink itself. It tasted like watered down green chilli sauce to me. Pass.

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We had some starters to begin the meal, a combination platter of chicken tikka, tandoori chicken, prawn and fish. The morsels were tender and well-marinated, though ultimately not as memorable as the mains.

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For mains, we had the Punjabi mutton dhabewala ($15), which was very tender pieces of goat simmered in a thick tomato-based curry. I didn’t get much of it because DC and his dad slurped most of it up! No great loss to me because I was most enamoured of the palak paneer ($15). It was incredibly smooth and creamy without being heavy, and had a tart tang that made it taste almost like tomato (green tomato?). The paneer (mild yogurt cheese) cubes were just the right consistency of yielding yet chewy to the bite. It was really excellent when wiped up with plain naan ($3), probably the best naan I’ve had in recent memory. It was quite thin and amazingly crisp, yet despite its thinness had a soft, slightly al dente centre. If not for the crab biriyani ($25) that followed, we’d probably have ordered one each. Oh yes, there was another dish with okra – I can’t remember what it was exactly, except that it was decent. Too bad that the other dishes completely stole the show.

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And then the piece de resistance! The crab biriyani is da bomb. It is such a great idea: cleanly shelled crab (no nasty jaw-jarring bits at all!) layered with fragrant basmati rice and cooked to a beautifully spiced finish. Add some curry gravy to moisten the thing and you wouldn’t even miss the raita that they forgot (they later included it in the portion we took home). There was a lot of moist, fresh crab in the biriyani, each spoonful had plenty of crab to feel its texture on the tongue and fully taste the yummy crustaceousness of it. It’s such a great idea for a lighter biriyani. I’m definitely coming back for this.

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We were so stuffed that we had to take back a portion of our crab biriyani. But that didn’t stop us from ordering the jalebies ($8). These little fried dough coils soaked in fragrant syrup were quite special: crisp throughout and not tooth-achingly sweet, the syrup was spiked with some lemon juice to round off our dinner on a yummy sweet-sour note. Be warned that each jalebie is quite small, so it may not be the value you’re looking for.

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Nonetheless, we had a very good deal because the place was running a 40% discount promotion on all orders made between 6-8pm. Get there for your crab biriyani fix!

Heritage Bites
#B1-012 Suntec City Mall
Tel: 6837 0858

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A Cambodian Bug Encounter

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I’d known of this Cambodian place for a while but just never got round to trying it out until now. We started with a fairly standard pomelo salad that I thought tasted a bit too weird for my liking. While it had almost Thai flavours of fishy smoked fish, some sweet, some sour, and some chilli, it was fairly toned down in terms of the four standard flavours. There was a herb in it that I didn’t appreciate – it was a bit too earthy and bitter-smelling (though not actually tasting bitter at all), a bit like off garlic.

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The other starter was much better: steamed minced pork paste with preserved fish roe. It was very unusual, like a cross between a warm pate and meatloaf. I scooped spoonfuls of the smokey, fishy meat mixture onto the raw veggies and enjoyed the almost salted egg-like flavour. I never knew that eggplant could be eaten raw and I happily walloped the spongey vegetable with the meat. It went surprisingly well.

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DC saw the writeup on crickets and tarantulas on the wall and immediately wanted to try them. I told him I could probably stomach a cricket or two rather than a hairy spider leg so he ordered this off-menu. My heart sank when the deep-fried crickets arrived. The fellas were fried to a dark crisp – so much so that their carapaces were almost black, making them look like skinny cockroaches. Ewwww. Feeling slightly queasy, I attempted a few times to spear one with my fork but failed as the little buggers (literally!) were fried so hard and crisp they were impossible to spear. DC and I picked out one that looked least like cockroach and I gingerly ate its thorax and abdomen. Honestly, it didn’t taste like much aside from deep-fried. There was a very slightly sour aftertaste but not much. So there was half a cricket in my stomach and the other half – black and winged – still sitting on my plate. I hid it in my rice and hastily chewed it up, and swallowed. Then I looked up and saw DC calmly, and with great enjoyment, crunching up the rest of the plate of crickets. This is the reason why I’m a wuss and I’m with this very brave man with the appetite for adventure. If he can put up with bug-eating, who knows what other crap he can put up with!

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OK so enough with the wussing out – the last dish was their signature dish of fish amok. I’d tried it in Cambodia before and was expecting something thick yet still fluid, somewhat like Thai green curry. This version was like a non-spicy otak. The flavours were very similar and the fish was moulded in a slightly runny coconut custard. DC and I both liked the delicate flavours and the soft-firm texture of the fish. Thumbs up!

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We didn’t manage to get dessert as the banana sago dish I wanted wasn’t available. Service here is generally very sincere and warm, though slightly dopey and haphazard. Be patient with them and you’ll have a good experience.

Khmer Delight
922 East Coast Road
Tel: 6449 1529

Candlenut Kitchen

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Misa and I were overdue for a catchup and we chose Candlenut Kitchen for that. We were sad that Trish and Adele couldn’t join us, maybe a little because we missed their company, but mainly because we were severely limited in how much we could eat! It was very gutting (pun intended) that we only had space for two mains and a dessert. We had to choose our dishes wisely and started with Misa’s perennial favourite: assam fish ($16.80). I thought it a very good version, though not quite as rich in flavour as I’d like. While flavourful from the assam and laksa leaves, I found the gravy a little watered down. It would not go well in DC’s house (he’s Peranakan). Still, a decent rendition – good for desperate times when you can’t get the home-cooked version.

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I read good reviews about yeye’s curry ($12.80), a white curry made with white pepper instead of the usual chilli rempah. On first chew, I thought it very similar to a mild version of Thai green curry and was a bit let down. The texture of the gravy certainly was very similar as it was very thick and lemak. It went really well with the chunks of chicken thigh. After a few more bites, the subtlety of the dish starts to come through and the magic of the pepper starts to weave its spell. It’s spicy yet gentle in its kick, with a level of complexity that’s hard to describe. I’ve been remiss in my posts and this dinner was had slightly more than a month ago before Christmas. My mouth still waters as I write this, it’s worth the trip just for this one dish.

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For dessert, we had the Christmas special dessert which is sadly off the menu now. It was a bombe Alaska of sorts, with chestnut, banana and chocolate. While we both thought it a bit too sweet with the honey drizzled on top, the banana and chestnut combination was pretty addictive.

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This is a restaurant with very good potential. I’m already plotting my next trip back!

Candlenut Kitchen
25 Neil Road
Tel: 6226 2506

Modern Thai at Kha

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Hort Park is a special place for DC and me. We go there regularly but never quite during dinner time till this one time we went to Kha, a modern Thai restaurant. It’s run by the same person who does boutique hotels, one of them being Jia in Hong Kong. It’s cute how the names of the two places are linked: “jia” means “home” in Mandarin while in Cantonese, it’s pronounced “ka”. In Thai, kha is a modifier word for females to use at the end of a sentence to make it polite. (The equivalent for males is “khup”.) What a clever way to name the restaurant. I like!

I was pleasantly surprised already when they served the complimentary appetiser. Instead of the typical prawn crackers with sweet chilli sauce, they gave us popped rice biscuits with red curry sauce. It made for a zingy start to the meal.

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We ordered two appetisers and a main so that there’d be space for dessert. First was the crispy catfish with sweet pork and mango salad. It was very good – tangy and slightly spicy with plenty of texture. I’ve always liked the crispy floss-like texture of catfish done this way. They did right not to mess with the classic combination of catfish and young mango strips. I also liked the extra crunch of the peanuts but felt that the pork wasn’t necessary.

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Our second appetiser was banana flower salad with young coconut and chilli. I didn’t like this one as much. It still had the classic sweet-sour-spicy combination so characteristic of Thai salads, but I felt that the texture of banana flower didn’t lend itself well to a salad as it was too “siap siap” – you know that nasty tannic texture, a bit too sappy? The young coconut helped a little but didn’t help much to give interest for flavour. Interesting idea that flopped.

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The main we shared was very good! It was baked half sticky chicken stuffed with coriander and lemongrass, paired with stir fried pineapple rice. The sticky chicken was marinated in some kind of sweet dark sauce hence the stickiness from all that sugar. It tasted Asian but not quite vehemently Thai. The meltingly tender chicken paired nicely with the pineapple rice for a very safe, crowd-pleasing main. I liked how they used some unpolished rice to add flavour and texture. Good call.

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For dessert, we went for the baked pumpkin custard with coconut ice cream. The pumpkin custard is very typically Thai. This version was very nicely made, with smooth silky and not too sweet custard. It went very well with the rich coconut ice cream, a very nice end to the meal.

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Too bad the drinks weren’t as good. We wanted to enjoy the view outside and had our post-dinner drinks there. They tasted as bad as they looked. Don’t drink the aromatic pear mojito – the pear was somehow oxidised and brown; it left a very grainy feel in the mouth. The khao lao rum looked less bad and tasted OK. It was just another sweet drink. Both were very weak, so Kha is not a place for getting smashed.

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My verdict? A nice place for a romantic meal, just skip the drinks. I hear that they are moving soon. It’s a pity as the space is really quite lovely. Check it out soon!

Kha Restaurant
33 Hyderabad Rd
Tel: 6476 9000

Pepes

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I finally got round to trying Pepes with DC and his parents. I’d heard quite a bit about how it’s a reincarnation of the former Sanur, just that a few dishes were tweaked so it’s slightly healthier and less oily. We started with the tauhu telor, the ubiquitous stack of tofu deep fried with egg and served with kicap manis. It looks like there isn’t enough kicap manis in the picture, but this is the good healthy bit: it’s up to you how much or how little sweet black goodness you want on your tauhu telor as they provide extra in a side saucer. It’s great how the deep-fried egg bits were softly crispy and had none of that nasty oil ooze. They used very tasty good-quality tofu as well. A winner!

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Next was the sup buntut which I enjoyed a lot. The soup had clear, bright flavours and very tender oxtail. DC commented that it tasted like they added Maggi seasoning, but I thought it was fine. Maybe Maggi seasoning adds that authentic Indonesian flavour?

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The sayur lodeh was average with nothing particularly memorable, neither was there anythingparticular to complain about.

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But the beef rendang really lived up to its hype. It really was very excellent. Don’t be deceived by the gloopy looking gravy. (I’m guessing that it’s like that because they use a food processor for the rempah, but I’m not that much of a purist so not complaining about that.) The mix of spices, together with the coconut and the gentle heat of the chilli was an epiphany. I also liked how the meat was quite tender (though beef somehow never gets quite as tender as mutton) and came in large pieces all the better to mop up the sauce with.

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The barbecued squid was a bit of a pleasant surprise. They updated this traditional dish by topping it with chopped ripe tomatoes and they really added oomph! I liked the interplay of charred chewy squid with smoky sweet sauce and sweet, tart tomato. Another good dish.

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Get there before 7pm and you’re more likely to get a table, otherwise call ahead.

Pepes
391 Orchard Road 04-16 Ngee Ann City
Tel: 6836 3456

Minang Nasi Padang: Best Beef Rendang Ever

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Shinta and I were in the Arab Street area so we had to drop by Minang Nasi Padang for lunch. DC had raved about it before (he’s now raving about another place, but more about that in a later post). As usual, we ordered too much. Between the two of us we had beef rendang, curry chicken, squid in its own ink, begedil and sweet potato leaves cooked in coconut milk.

It was all very good quality, with the tender, well-spiced chicken and the richly gravied potato leaves being above average. The  dry-style beef rendang, however, stole the show. Its incredibly depth of flavour and smokiness blew me away. They spiced the dish incredibly well and toasted the spices so well that the slightly tough texture of the meat actually added to its allure. Upon further chewing, the meat yielded more flavour. Despite the lack of tenderness, it’s my favourite beef rendang thus far.

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Minang Nasi Padang
18 & 18A Kandahar St
Tel: 9457 7384

June in Thailand: The Stir-Fry Fireball and Other Cooking Adventures

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The highlight of Chiang Mai was something I hadn’t planned: cooking classes. I was intrigued by the large number of courses on offer at the various guesthouses. Cooking classes seemed as popular as day treks to the hilltribe villages. Tom and I decided that we just had to go for one. We chose The Best Thai Cookery School, run by the inimitable Permpoon “call me Perm” Nabnian, not just because of the price but also because of the almost shameless self-promotion on the brochure.

The morning started off from the back of his pickup truck, a nicely converted vehicle with fairly comfy seats at the back. He picked us all up personally, squeezed us all in the truck, and took us on a tour of a little local market. Here, he took us through the entire encyclopedia of Thai vegetables and herbs. Being Southeast Asian, I thought I’d be familiar with all he’d show us, but I was surprised when he showed us another version of ginger I didn’t know. Of course there was the regular ginger, there was blue ginger (galangal) and yellow ginger (turmeric). But there was also something called lesser or finger ginger, which he’s holding up on the left hand side of the picture. I also learned that Thai basil and holy basil were different plants, both also quite different from the sweet basil used in Mediterranean cooking.

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Aside from that, it was lovely to see the great variety of herbs and vegetables available in the Thai market. Seeing the cute rotund green brinjals made me want to set up kitchen there straight away. Along the way, Perm dispensed little tips like don’t be crazy like the Westerners and go for the largest eggs: buy only small eggs because they’re much tastier.

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And the mushrooms! I don’t know why, but fresh straw mushrooms just aren’t available in Singapore. I love this stuff in soup, especially tom yam. It really is just too bad that so far I’ve only found this good stuff in Thailand and China.

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Whirl round market over, we bundled back into the pickup and went to his house in the suburbs for the cooking lessons proper. First, we learned how to make mango sticky rice. I was surprised that it was made by steaming instead of the typical boiling my Chinese heritage is familiar with. I’ll share the recipe once I get round to making it at home.

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After a round of demonstrations, we were all obviously itching to go. We weren’t issued the aprons and dish cloths for nothing! We’d each chosen a stir-fry dish: I wanted the minced pork fried with holy basil and Tom went for the fried morning glory. The ingredients were all prepared for us and all we needed to do was a bit of minor chopping.

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After getting the food prep out of the way, we were ready for the most exciting part of the course! We took turns with our partners to do our respective dishes, for safety and also to make sure that there was a photographer to document the momentous occasion. First, we got our ingredients ready and stood by the hot woks. Perm came round adding the oil and checking our work stations.

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At his signal, it was time! With a great roar, the flames leapt up together with lots of smoke and exclamations from the more timid of the lot.

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It’s just too bad that the pictures didn’t really do it justice because the flames really went pretty high.

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They only truly died down when I added in the sauce ingredients.

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And there was my minced pork with holy basil replete with plenty of wok hei. Now this is how you do it!

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Next, Perm taught us how to make papaya salad (which I’d already learned by observing the people at the street stand in Laos!) and deep fried banana spring rolls.

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The fun tip I learned here was to use a cut up banana like a glue stick to seal the spring roll wrappers. In my greed, I later forgot to take pictures of them, so no you can’t see the finished product. However, what you can see is me grinning maniacally while making my spring roll.

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We proceeded on to making our own curries and carb dish. I made jungle curry and khao tom. Didn’t quite like the jungle curry but loved the khao tom. And I realise now that khao tom is all about the right kind of soy sauce and also the sprinkling of chinese parsley on top. Tom made a very yummy massaman curry and pad thai. Look at his pleased expression cooking it up! He had rather a short-lived (5 minutes to be exact) of going back to Wales to set up a Thai restaurant.

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As a bonus, Perm also very generously taught Tom and me to make coconut and banana soup. It’s pretty much the same as the soup we make further south in Malaysia and Singapore, just that I think our version is slightly better because we use the more fragrant gula melaka rather than white sugar. Nonetheless, we assembled all our cooking out in the patio and shared the food. It was all very very good, especially since many of my classmates were cooking for the first time. Just goes to show how good Perm is!

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Of course I had to have a parting shot with the chef himself. He was industriously preparing for the evening class already and I had to catch him at the back before he drove us back to town!

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