Friday, July 25, 2008

Madras Lane

A very nostalgic piece from The Malaysian Insider

The shrinking of Madras Lane

The Chia sisters, Me Lim (left) and Ai Lian, have been dishing out curry laksa in Madras Lane for over 30 years.

By Debra Chong

JULY 26 — The signs were there. Hanging above the hawker stalls, swinging slighty in the breeze coming from the steaming hot pots, each plastic board proclaiming their individual specialities: Famous Madras Lane Chee Cheong Fun, Madras Lane Curry Laksa — and the most prominent — Madras Lane Yong Tau Foo! The entire place was a tight huddle of eight food and drinks stalls.

Yet the rusty signboard nailed to the beam outside stated differently. In fading letters, it read "Penjaja Gallery Jalan Sultan".

Confusing? You bet. But such is the way of life in this corner of Southeast Asia where things come bearing assorted labels. A road, for example, is known by different names depending on the ethnicities of the people that ply it.

This tiny, extremely narrow hawker centre off touristy Petaling Street, also known as Jalan Petaling (its official name in Bahasa Malaysia) and Chee Cheong Kai (in Cantonese) in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown, is no different.

The Madras Lane yong tau foo is one of Kuala Lumpur's best-kept secrets. — Pictures by Choo Choy May

Yet strangely enough, the Madras Lane in the hawker centre's name never actually existed. It came into being through proximity with a landmark in the area that had long ago burnt down, says a cheery-faced "Aunty" behind one of the three curry laksa stalls in that decrepit row.

"The name came from the nearby Madras Cinema. It used to be where the parking lot is now," says Chia Ai Lian, pointing to a spot some five metres behind her stall.

Ai Lian, in her 40s and her elder sister, Me Lim, 60-plus, are second-generation hawkers at Madras Lane. They've been stationed there for over 30 years, having inherited the very stall from their mother.

Wan Siew Yee plans to build a chee cheong fun empire on the Madras Lane brand.

"My elder sister does the cooking. Me? I take the money," laughs the younger of the two sweet-faced women.

Ai Lian stops dishing out piping hot bowls of curry noodles from behind a counter congested with mountains of cockles, stewed long brinjals, taupok and a large basin of chicken curry and another large basin of long bean curry to give me a brief history lesson of the area.

"This place has been around for over 50 years. Madras Lane used to be much longer, going all the way till the end of the road down there," she points again, this time to the concrete alley outside the roofed structure, which swings out of sight behind a leafy plant growing out of a crack in a wall.

It used to be an open space too, she reminisces. The hawkers all operated under giant umbrellas to shield them from the sun and the rain. They were open all day. Then, the customers comprised housewives doing their daily marketing at the wet market next door to the late-night moviegoers flocking to the cinema.

It's hard to get a seat during lunch.

Business used to be far more hectic those days. There was even a time when her two eldest brothers opened up a branch stall at the other end of the lane to cash in on the boom.

And then the cinema burnt down in 1979, or was it 1980? Ai Lian forgets. She turns to ask her chubby-faced neighbour, the chee cheong fun seller.

"Hai, hai, hai, it was 1979 or 1980. I also cannot remember," Wan Siew Yee chips in excitedly. Though she was no help with the date or details, Wan is a wonder when it comes to the colourful details. She remembers clearly the fire that broke out in the cinema had quickly ravaged the building despite the firemen's best efforts to put it out.

"This place was being renovated then. They were making a cement floor… it used to be a dirt floor. All the hawkers had to move away to the other side near the temple, which was not so good for business because it was too narrow, so I decided to open up a temporary stall closer to the cinema, but it was very hot and I got very dark from standing in the sun. Hahahahaha!

K.K. Ngeow (left), a third-generation yong tau foo seller, doesn't want his children to get into the family business.

"But that day the fire broke out in the cinema, I decided to go and see what was happening, and when I came back, my stall was flooded from the spraying by the Bomba to put out the fire. Everything was wet. Aiyo!"

The garrulous woman is an animated storyteller. She tells us how she is the third-generation in the family to run a chee cheong fun business. It started with her husband's grandfather — that's right, she married into the family and the business in1977 — who already had a stall in Kampar, Perak. Business there was not good, so he decided to move to KL and uprooted his entire family in the process.

It proved to be a wise choice on his part. Until that fateful fiery day, Madras Lane was a miniature boomtown.

Wan calls out to K.K. Ngeow, 42, the only yong tau foo seller in Madras Lane, to join in the storytelling. Bathed in sweat, he seems a tad reluctant at first but does as she bids anyway. He is straight to the point. "Yes, what do you want to know?"

We tell him: your background story. He replies: he is also third-generation. His grandfather set up the stall in Madras Lane, his father took over the business after grand-dad passed away, and he himself became boss two years ago when his father decided to retire permanently. He was initiated into the family trade at age 10 when he was in charge of washing the vegetables and dishes. He continued to help out after school hours and during the holidays. Then, he stops, awaiting the next question.

The back entrance to Madras Lane.

So we ask: how is it your business is so popular? He answers: "We cut our meat by hand."

Seeing our puzzlement, he tries to explain. The fish paste for the yong tau foo stuffing is made fresh daily. They use only saito, what the Malays call ikan parang and the English know as wolf herring, because the fish forms a natural starch when sliced by hand and whipped. It gives a nice, smooth, elastic texture to the fish paste and that is what makes the ideal stuffing for the yong tau foo.

It is different if the fish is machine-sliced. The machine essentially squeezes the water out of the fish and mashes everything up, so that the end-product is a dry, flaky paste and makes poor quality yong tau foo.

Office workers pack the ramshackle hawker centre during lunch.

Come lunchtime and Madras Lane turns into a madhouse. Orders, money and sloshy bowls of soup exchange hands above heads bent over their own bowls of food. It's all chopsticks, elbows, knees, shoulders and hips everywhere as gigantic waves of ravenous office workers slam into the shaded but humid alley, seemingly appearing out of nowhere.

A queue forms quickly at Ngeow's end, slithering out into the alley and snaking back in behind the yong tau foo counter. It is by far the most popular stall — each piece costs only 80 sen. The other stalls aren't shabby either. There's hardly any space to breathe, let alone sit. Some don't bother and eat standing up. The heat is intense, but the food is delicious, hearty, warming, a great relief after four hours stuck in a popsicle office.

Just as suddenly as they appeared, the horde is gone, sated. A handful of diners, looking suspiciously like lost tourists, mill about. Some of the stalls start washing up. Most of their stock is gone. The Chia sisters' piles and piles of side dishes are wiped out. Ai Lian shrugs and says, "This is normal." The hawkers open for business at about 7am and close by 3pm, after the lunch crowd disappears, and they go home.

The grimy clock at one end of the hawker centre, closest to the dingy, claustrophobic market, reads 2.30pm.

Wan says that's how it is these days. Sundays are a bit better, they get families from out of town who grew up in the neighbourhood and come back for a taste of nostalgia. But business isn't what it was like before the cinema burnt down. After that, well, things just got worse.

Rent in Chinatown skyrocketed. Back in those days, you could get a whole house for about a hundred dollars, says Ai Lian. It was so convenient then, you live upstairs, and you work downstairs. Now, you'd have to pay thousands of ringgit for a small space. That's why the shophouses have turned commercial.

Most of the hawkers here today grew up in the neighbourhood, Ai Lian adds. She used to live here with her seven siblings, watching her late mother single-handedly raise the family after her father died, all on her curry laksa income. "Mother didn't know any other skill and curry laksa was her specialty."

A decade or so ago, rent got too expensive to afford, and many moved out. They closed shop and opened up closer to their new homes. The Chia sisters moved out to Puchong, but continued to sell curry laksa from their mother's spot.

"Because people know this place. If we sell elsewhere, we'll have to start all over again. We're not young anymore," says Ai Lian.

The hawker stalls used to stretch the entire length of this alley, now deserted.

Ai Lian and Me Lim were the only ones who did not marry. The rest of their siblings settled down. None of them are interested to take over the business. When the sisters go, the legacy of their mother's curry laksa recipe too will be gone.

In Ngeow's case, he doesn't want any of his three children to follow in his footsteps. "It's not easy to do this. My job is to work hard and make sure they stay in school; their job is to study hard and only if they cannot study, then can enter the family business."

But the ebullient Wan has other plans. She wants to build a chee cheong fun empire under the brand name "Madras Lane Rice Noodles", and she's already started. The family's secret sauce recipe that was taught to her, she has passed on to her mother, sister and daughter who dish out the same dish at three different locales in the Klang Valley: Bangsar, OUG (Overseas Union Garden) and Old Klang Road. She's even made them wear some sort of uniform when they work.

The days of that famous hawker centre in the dinky, little alley may be numbered, but who knows, another Madras Lane might pop out elsewhere, like a George Lucas production.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Asam House, IOI Mall, Puchong

A mouth-watering affair


Photos by SAMUEL ONG

ANYTHING associated with tanginess is bound to make mouths water.

This is the case with Asam House, a local café in the IOI Mall in Puchong. The photos of its many mouth-watering local dishes plastered on the wall just goad diners further after the word asam has done the trick.

Food for a worthy cause: Loh holding up a plate of Cucur Sayur and Cucur Udang. He is also the director of Community At Heart, a programme that aids the poor in Puchong.

When you decide to eat at Asam House, you are also contributing to a good cause. Café owner Timothy Loh is the director of Community At Heart, a programme that aids the underprivileged.

“We meet the grocery needs of three orphanages under Rumah Shalom in Puchong on a weekly basis. A list arrives from the homes every Monday and we work with suppliers to match the needs,” said Loh, who is keen on working with more suppliers who share his vision to help the needy.

A hearty meal at Asam House can be had for under RM10 and there are 40 dishes to tickle your fancy. When Loh took over from the previous owner three years ago, he simply added 10 more dishes to beef up the menu.

It goes without saying that the must-tries are the asam-laced dishes like Asam Fish, Asam Prawn and Asam Sotong. Regulars are also known to return for the generous helpings.

“It is common to attach the chilli factor to the tangy taste. But, our asam dishes are tempered with a touch of sweetness that even children have been known to relish,” shared Loh.

Meal-in-one: The Thai Fried Rice with chicken.

A delicate, tamarind juice-inspired sauce coated the prawns in the Asam Prawn dish we were offered. Shelled prawns are normally favoured but in this case, enjoying the medium-sized prawns whole did justice to the lovingly prepared asam sauce.

For a slight tweak to the recipe, diners often go with the Ikan Pari with Asam Sauce, enjoying the fish’s brittle exterior with the sweet-and-tangy sauce. The Butter Chicken dish, blanketed in a creamy sauce with hints of turmeric, comes in a fish version, too.

Asam House's single meal rice dishes include the Sambal Fried Rice and Thai Fried Rice. Snacks that swiftly disappear with the teatime crowd are the Cucur Udang, Cucur Sayur and Lobak, individually served with a chilli dip.

If you sneak a peek into one of the bubbling pots near the counter, you will also discover several types of sweet porridge like Bubur Cha Cha and Bubur Kacang Hijau. These offerings disappear quickly on weekends because Asam House is a popular pit-stop for those wanting to catch a flick at the cinema near the café.

ASAM HOUSE (halal) Lot 19-21, 3rd Floor, IOI Mall, Puchong, Selangor (Tel: 012-373 4488). Business Hours: Sun to Thurs (11am to 10pm); Fri and Sat (11am to 11pm).

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Pancakes in Ipoh

Liew Choo Keng’s pancakes are so good that people keep coming back for more.

LIEW Chooi Keng is not your average pancake maker. At her customer’s request, she will happily mix the pancake filling with peanut butter, chocolate chips, bananas, cheese and even chicken sausages.

Crunchy delight: Liew Chooi Keng

dishing out her famous pancakes at

Restaurant Tim Shun Leong in Ipoh.

And the skin of the sweet and savoury apom balik that wraps around the fillings is made so thin that each crunchy bite is a delight.

Thirty-something Liew’s pancakes are so good that people keep coming back for more. Some come from as far as Singapore for her dai gau meen, as the locals call them.

“Once, a Singaporean ordered 100 pieces on the spot,” recalls Liew. “He wanted to treat his friends and family back home”.

Liew adds that some customers had even “scolded” her for not telling them that she had moved her stall to a new spot.

Liew opened her first stall in Ipoh Garden 18 years ago, but moved to a restaurant in Kampar Garden early this year.

“Like many pancake makers, I started out making the pancakes with crushed-peanut filling,” says Liew, who learned the trade from her father-in-law.

“Three years after I started my business, I began trying different recipes for my pancakes because there is a lot of competition.

“I wanted something different, so I added kaya and peanut butter to my growing list of different fillings.”

She was even inspired by her three pizza-loving children, who asked her to use cheese and sausages.

Inspired: Liew Chooi Keng’s pancakes

are made with many different fillings.

“It tasted good and I made it a permanent order on my menu.”

Liew once tried to infuse fruits like strawberries and mangoes with the pancakes but it was not cost efficient.

“They are quite costly and must served immediately.” she says Liew’s best seller is chicken-floss dai gau meen, which remains crunchy even after two days.

“But nothing beats eating the pancakes fresh from the pan,” she quips.

Liew’s stall is located in Restaurant Tim Shun Leong at 22, Jalan Peh Kee Koh, Kampar Garden, Ipoh. For details, call Liew (016-541 1365).

Friday, May 2, 2008

Dragon-i Signature at Pavilion Kuala Lumpur

Shanghainese, pure and true

Longing for some traditional Shanghainese delicacies? Satisfy your appetite while doing your part for charity at Dragon-i Signature.


Dragon-i Signature Restaurant
Pavilion KL
Bukit Bintang
Kuala Lumpur


Authentic Shanghainese cuisine is hard to come by in Malaysia. But Dragon-i Signature at Pavilion Kuala Lumpur is about to change that.

They are positioning themselves at the place to get premium traditional Shanghainese cuisine.

Dragon-i Signature will be hosting a special charity weekend dinner featuring Shanghainese delicacies on May 3–4 in conjunction with the May 2 opening of its flagship outlet at Pavilion Kuala Lumpur.

Steamed Hilsa Herring Shanghainese Style.

The eight-course menu is specially developed by Dragon-i’s China-born executive chef Man Fong Lam and will be prepared by him and his team of highly-skilled mainland Chinese and local chefs. Eighteen tables will be offered, nine on May 3 and nine on May 4, at RM2,000 nett per table of 10 pax.

Dragon-i Chief Executive Henry Yip said they will donate the entire proceeds from the dinner amounting to RM20,000 to Persatuan Wanita Berilmu Malaysia and other women welfare organisations.

At the tasting preview, Yip explained that the dishes we were about to sample were only available at the Pavilion outlet. He said Dragon-i hoped to promote the strong and sweet taste of Shanghainese cuisine to Malaysians.

We started off with four cold appetisers – Shanghainese Smoked Fish, Japanese Cucumber with Garlic, Chilled Wine-marinated Chicken and Honey–glazed Crispy Eel – collectively named Grandeur Quartet in Harmony. The eel was was deliciously coated in honey and fried to a crisp – great for whetting one’s appetite.

Their Shanghainese Dumpling came with a twist as it was filled with crab roe. Yip showed us the proper way to savour the dumpling – place it into your soup spoon, then poke a hole at the bottom to let the soup seep out. You slurp the soup up, add some ginger and vinegar for taste and put the whole dumpling in your mouth for a delicious finish.

Tempting: Stir-fried Prawns with Signature Sauce.

Yip said that their dumplings will be filled with hairy crab flown directly from China from September to November.

Double-boiled Superior Chicken Soup with Brussels Sprouts was served next. This soup is boiled in herbs, with sponge-like bamboo piths added into the soup to absorb the flavours. The chicken used to boil the soup is served separately. The soup is very flavourful.

Next on the menu was the Stir-fried Prawns with Signature Sauce – a slightly spicy, sweet and sour sauce containing rice wine, chilli and tomato.

“This common dish in Shanghai is very popular with the customers here,” said Yip. The deep-sea prawns, obtained from fishermen in Pantai Remis, a small town in Sitiawan, Perak, were huge and fresh. I had difficulty eating them because of their size, not that I’m complaining. Yip said buying direct from the fishermen kept the cost down.

The next dish, Steamed Hilsa Herring Shanghainese Style, was unique as it is only served on special occasions. Customers may order in advance if they would like to savour this rare dish in which the fish is steamed with its scales intact. The scales were edible and it was quite interesting to crunch on it, sort of like eating cartilage. The dish is expensive, RM180 for half a fish.

So new: Executive Chef Man Fong Lam from Jiangsu, China, at work in the kitchen of Dragon-i Signature Restaurant. — Raymond Ooi/THE STAR

Deep Fried Mandarin Fish was served next, a platter of fish flesh sliced and fried to look like flowers.

After that, Braised Mushroom with Dried Scallops & Vegetables was served together with Fragrant Crispy 8-Treasure Stuffed Duck. The duck’s skin was deliciously crispy and generously stuffed with mushrooms, scallops, lotus seed, glutinous rice, chinese sausages, bamboo shoots, ham and dried prawns.

Their signature dish, Fried Rice with Scallops & Crab Meat, uses fragrant Thai rice fried with egg white, dry scallops and crabmeat. The rice tasted light and fluffy and gave off a fragrant smell.

Dessert was Bird’s Nest with Egg White & Waterchestnut Cream and Honey-coated Banana Fritters – a must-try. I fell in love with their banana fritters, apparently a traditional Shanghainese dessert.

The banana is steamed and fried before coated with thick maltose. Then it is dipped into ice water for the maltose to crystallise, creating a crunchy sweet outer layer that gives way to a soft steaming banana when you sink your teeth into it.


For charity dinner reservations and enquiries, call 03-2143 7688.