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

July in Vietnam: The Imperial Capital of Hue

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It was early morning when I got into Hue and hopped out of the night bus. A lovely long day of sightseeing across the Perfume River awaited.

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Here in Central Vietnam, there was a slight change in personality. Somehow I felt that people weren’t quite as hardened by war and that commerce, tourism and the free market had penetrated somewhat.

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The first stop was the Imperial Enclosure, a large citadel built by the Vietnamese emperors. These were largely in the Chinese style, given the vast influence exerted by their vast northern neighbour. First, I had to get past the outer moat.

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The walls surrounding the Enclosure were thick earthen ones with squat yet somehow very fitting gates and gatehouses built into the packed earth.

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And then there were the grand linkways between the various buildings topped by intricate carvings and prosperous sayings.

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The buildings themselves were very grand. Again, the strong Chinese influence was unmistakable, particularly in the Thai Hoa Palace, a receiving hall for the emperor.

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Further towards the back of the Enclosure were little residences of a slightly less grandiose nature, like the Truong San Residence, recently rebuilt after being devastated in the war. The pretty garden with rockery and pond added lots of charm to the place.

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I liked the little details I saw while wandering through the city in miniature. Looking up at the eaves of gates, I wondered why the decorations were made that way, whether for good luck or merely for ornamentation, perhaps to please the whim of a favoured concubine.

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Other decorations were more for impressing visitors, like this stone qilin (unicorn).

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There were also old cannon left behind from the old days. I wonder whether these were just for show or they really were meant for battle.

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Nonetheless, these weren’t spared the Fun with English sign of “No laying sitting on the selics.” Evidently done by someone with poor copyrighting skills.

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Outside the enclosure but still within the compound of the ancient city, there was plenty of living city. People carried on their daily business amidst the backdrop of beautiful lotus pond fringed by banana trees.

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After walking round imagining what life in ancient Hue would be like, I went to Y Thao Garden, a restaurant that specialised in imperial Hue cuisine. It had a little garden in the style of the imperial palace.

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The menu here is a Viet version of the degustation menu, with lots of little course that never quite seem to end. The only problem for a one-person meal was that the little courses weren’t as little as expected, as evidenced by this starter of deep-fried spring rolls masquerading as feathers atop a pineapple-carrot phoenix.

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Then came the less highly decorated poached prawns with salt and pepper.

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Followed by a slightly greasy but very yummy pancake called banh khoai. It was stuffed with meat and beansprouts and dipped in a peanut-based sauce.

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Next came a meat salad of sorts, a bit like the Lao/Thai larb gai. Combined with herbs and topped with ground peanuts, this aromatic mixture was eaten by scooping some up on a crunchy prawn cracker.

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I so full I was about to give up when the rice arrived. I thought it was going to be a run of the mill fried rice but boy was I wrong. This appeared to be fully vegetarian. The rice was cooked in a lotus leaf  with carrot, lotus seeds, black fungus and other vegetables. The fragrance of the dish blew me away. I don’t know what they did to make it taste so good but they sure did the right thing.

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Dessert was slightly less inspiring. There was only one, masquerading as table flowers. They’ve changed with the times and use plastic flower stems as the base, sticking on little soft pastry desserts. The filling was yellow mung bean, which was encased in a soft glutinous rice pastry, then painted over with some glossy jelly. It was pretty but not particularly tasty. Nonetheless, it was overall a great introduction to Hue imperial cuisine.

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Y Thao Garden
D Thach Han
Hue, Vietnam

[edited to include name and address of restaurant]

Quick Eats: Temple Street Desserts

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Mei Heong Yuen is famous for its excellent desserts. The standards are still high despite its popularity and the sheer volume of people and corresponding desserts passing through. I went for the tang yuan in ginger soup. The glutinous rice balls were soft and chewy and came in black sesame and peanut flavours. I liked the peanut one more as the filling had bits of crunch while being just the right sweetness. It contrasted nicely with the spicy ginger soup. Such traditional comfort food for me.

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Slightly less traditional was the shaved ice that was new to the menu. I like how they took a new-fangled idea and made it their own with the almond snow ice. It’s basically a block of their signature almond cream frozen and shaved into delicate layers. Same familiar flavour, quite a different and incredibly novel texture. I liked how the very slightly grainy almond layers melted in the mouth.

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I’ll definitely be there again soon, sooner if it’s a hot day!


Mei Heong Yuen Dessert
65-67 Temple Street
Tel: 6221 1156

The Best Barbecued Chicken Wings I’ve Had in a While

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I’m surprised Shinta didn’t take me to this place earlier. His aunt runs a barbecued chicken stall in Marine Parade and it’s the best I’ve had in a long while.

We dropped by unannounced and she immediately bustled to grill us some fresh. It took a while but was well worth it. The skin was crisp and bursty, almost exploding on contact to let out the juicy meat. It was smoky and well marinated, tasting quite different from the usual soy sauce-infused one at other stalls. I was too busy wolfing down my share so Shinta wouldn’t take mine to really take note of the flavours. One word suffices: GOOD.

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I also hadn’t had freshly grilled satay in a while. Most stalls pre-grill them so they don’t come piping hot like these. Here with the peanut sauce, it was perfect. I’m definitely coming back.

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Sorry, not very helpful with the name and address. I was too engrossed to take note. It’s at the coffee shop along the road leading to the NTUC, the only stall selling chicken wings.

August in China: Food in Yangshuo and Guilin

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The first night in Yangshuo was my first time in a less developed part of China. Tortoise and I thought we’d eat at one of the bustling local restaurants. I was so amused when our crockery arrived pre-sterilised in a vacuum pack. There was no need for the usual rinsing with a splash of hot water. No pictures of the dinner we had because we were too hungry and forgot to take pictures. We had beer duck (pi jiu ya) which was quite spicy but had no trace of beer in it. We had difficulty finding the meat as all the pieces seemed to be nothing but bone and gristle. I suppose that’s the consequence of being in the countryside.

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The next morning we staggered out for breakfast at this makeshift stall selling Guilin mifen (rice noodles). The lady would hand over a bowl of noodles topped with minced meat and black fungus, and then it’s up to the customer to add the ingredients to taste. There was piping hot pork stock (of course fortified with msg), several kinds of pickles and boiled soy beans.

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It was a delicious combination. I particularly liked the kang kong and long bean pickles and developed a taste for them from then on. The combination of ferment, sour and spicy was so addictive that for the rest of the trip I’d often seek out Guilin noodles or anything with long bean pickle in them.

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Stopping for lunch, we also had horse noodles (ma rou fen). It’s been a long time since I last had horse (that was in sandwiches in Germany). It tasted a bit like venison and was quite robust and pleasingly chewy. I liked it, but Guilin noodles are still better.

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Famous and Not-So at Tanjong Pagar Hawker Centre

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Tanjong Pagar Hawker Centre isn’t the most famous, but it’s got lots of good food. One of them is the Ipoh horfun stall at #02-21. In my excitement I forgot to take down the name, but it’s run by smiley duo who cook their food with love. My friend recommended ordering the macaroni instead of horfun, which wasn’t the best move because it was overcooked. Some of them were so soft the pasta actually split down the middle. Oh well, next time I’ll order the horfun version.

The mushrooms were plump and juicy while the chicken came in generous strips that were rather juicy for breast meat. The dollop of chilli gave a good kick to the dish though I found the brown sauce itself lacked a bit of oomph.

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The soup really clinched it for me. It burst with clear, fresh flavours yet was light and almost refreshing. A big plus were the wantons which were stuffed with pure prawn and nothing else. It’s a good deal for $2.50!

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(Sorry I forgot the name of this stall!)
Blk 6 Tanjong Pagar Plaza
#02-21, Tanjong Pagar Plaza Market & Food Centre

At the same hawker centre is Annie’s famous peanut ice kachang. While I’m not an ice kachang fan, Annie’s version is perfect for a hot day. Super soft and mushy red beans, sweet corn and of course ground peanuts lavishly cover a tower of sweetened shaved ice. Underneath lies black chinchow cubes and green chendol strips. The grainy, crunchy, chewy textures work very well with the bland, sweet and cold. Good stuff for $1.50.

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Annie’s Peanut Ice Kachang
Blk 6 Tanjong Pagar Plaza
#02-36, Tanjong Pagar Plaza Market & Food Centre

Oil-Free Laksa Leaf Salad

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I’m going through a laksa leaf craze now and am trying different ways to use it that’s different from the typical laksa lemak dishes. I’ve been wanting to make an oil-free Eastern salad and this came together. If you can’t find laksa leaves, you can use a soft leafy herb like mint or basil. Replace the jambu with apple if you can’t find that either. Add extra lemongrass if you can’t find torch ginger.

The most important thing about this salad is that all ingredients, especially the herbs, must be absolutely fresh. I made this a few days late as I wasn’t able to cook on schedule, and the laksa and torch ginger weren’t as fragrant as I like. Read my blog, learn from my mistakes!

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Ingredients:
1 red chilli, chopped
½ jambu, diced
5 cherry tomatoes, quartered
5 calamansi limes, juiced
2 tsp fish sauce
good handful laksa leaves, chopped
one stalk lemongrass, base only, chopped
torch ginger, chopped
10 local lettuce or Romaine leaves, sliced into strips
2 tbsp ground peanuts

Method:

  1. In a large bowl, combine the chilli, jambu and tomatoes with the lime juice and fish sauce. Set aside for the flavours to mingle and get on with the chopping for the other ingredients.
  2. Add the lemongrass, torch ginger and lettuce, tossing gently. Taste and adjust seasoning by adding more lime juice or fish sauce. Add some sugar if needed.
  3. Just before serving, sprinkle over the ground peanuts.

Serves 1.

Duck at the Lagoon

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It was the fourth day of Chinese New Year and lots of hawker stalls were still closed. Nonetheless, we braved it to East Coast Lagoon to get some lunch. To our relief, Cheok Kee Duck Rice was one of those open. Shockingly, there was a queue even though we got there at 2pm and the rest of the hawker centre was quite empty.

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Dad and I shared a ginormous plate of braised duck, gizzard, pig’s small intestine and tau kwa. I wasn’t expecting too much because I’d eaten there lots and never thought it was that fantastic. This time, the duck impressed me. It was stewed just right, till firm tender and absorbed the flavour of the black sauce. And it tasted robustly of duck. Yummy duck. The gizzard was pretty decent too, but Dad and Mum took most of it so I didn’t get a chance to properly taste it. Intestines were decent, better than the ones from the Amoy Street kway chap stall. The tau kwa was another winner: soft, creamy and full of black sauce goodness. ($15 for the plate of stuff and two bowls of noodles.)

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Check out the kway tiew dry. Enticing right? They were good, especially with the sambal chilli.

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Here are Mum’s fishball noodles. They’re from the stall nearer to the beach in front of the toilets. She said they had standard. I believe her. Check these out.

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I noticed that Zhen Jie from Amoy Street has a branch here, so I made sure I got my dessert fix. The peanut and black sesame cream ($2) is mighty good! The peanut part is very aromatic, you can tell they toasted the peanuts to make this. Thick and yummy. Dad liked the sesame part a lot because the sesame flavour was very strong. It’s a new favourite now that Yee Ku at Chinatown stopped making it right about 10 years ago.

The pulut hitam ($1.50) is good too. Thick, full of pulut flavour and topped with a good drizzle of coconut milk. They even ask you whether you want coconut on top. Tastes like how Mum would make it (if she bothers to).

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