Monday, February 21, 2011

Linda's Home Kitchen

I've heard of Area 51 but not the Tianluokeng tulou cluster. It's a shame, really. The former being absolutely geographically unrelated to my origin while the latter represents a cultural heritage of a Chinese clan that I belong to. Partially, to be exact, as I'm also half Cantonese. I'd survived from being a completely lost half Hakka by my fundamental knowledge of Hakka food, thanks to a maternal family that requires, among other delicacies, char zhu yuk (fried pork braised with fermented red beancurd and earwood fungus) and radish/dried oyster soup on those significant Chinese celebrations.

At the table, as we gazed at the beautiful photograph of the tulou cluster hung near the entrance, Sook told Ivan and I about her previous visit there. To be honest, that was the first time I'd ever heard of this extraordinary settlement. The photogragh showed houses with terracotta roofs joined to form a circular enclosure. They were behemoth. That's when UFOs, Area 51 and unexplained crop circles came to mind. It was definitely a good conversation piece.

The food at Linda's reminded me of the Hakka dishes that my mother would make daily - simple, delicious stir-fries using preserved ingredients like dace and vegetables. Of course, here, these dishes are given a more refined and visually-appetizing interpretation, without compromising, by my own standard, the taste and authenticity.

To replace the usual fu yu or fermented beancurd with dace to pair the romaine lettuce was nostalgic. And tasty. This, to go with just a bowl of plain congee would have been great as well. The preserved vegetables we get these days are salty, just. I miss the slightly sweet type, which really adds a flavourful dimension to the dish. Sourced from China, that's the type that Linda's using for the stewed pork trotter. Good stuff! I shouldn't forget the flaky pork trotter with the collagen dissolving into a gelatinous sauce, which goes to show how well-cooked the trotter was. Interestingly, I've never been familiar with the yam gnoochi (or abacus), despite it being a Hakka signature. Perhaps I was more of a turnip/shitake mushroom dumpling kind of Hakka. Linda's version, I have to say, was special. Instead of bandwagoning the typical springy texture, it came soft, almost melting. A classy act that didn't come too oily but equally aromatic and flavourful. There was also a sambal bee hoon presented with a layer of burnt crispy contrast to the smooth, soft strands of the right choice of rice vermicelli. Seriously, you'll be surprised to know that there are many out there misusing the different types of bee hoon. Oh, I should also mention the velvety serving of almond pudding to end the meal.

This was supposedly a planned Korean dinner but I'm sure glad we headed here instead. I'd learned quite a bit that evening, including the names of some infamous Australian restaurants from the company of wonderful food enthusiasts, that there is a cosy restaurant in town that's passionate about Hakka food and the Tianluokeng tulous.

Hakka cuisine is not as celebrated as its Cantonse and Hokkien counterparts. The truth is, there is much more than thunder tea, yong tau fu and salt. And you'll see it in Linda's menu.

Linda's Home Kitchen
206, Telok Ayer Street
Singapore 068641
Tel: (+65) 6284 7272

Friday, February 11, 2011

Lunch at Sek Yuen

The aluminium plates were each a piece of art, characteristically malled by the years they'd served. So impressive as well were the steaming hot rolls of colourful towels offered to the customers at the end of the meal. The cheerful and attentive hosts, especially the uncle in a Hawaiian shirt with loud hibiscus print, looked like they enjoyed their roles very much. A rarity these days, don't you think? In the background, Christmas songs sung in Mandarin where played. All these, and the food, made my first Sek Yuen experience on Christmas day a most satisfying one.

Dad recounted his few banquet attendances here some 30 years ago and praised their signature creations, including the chilled bowl of meat and jelly. Some of these dishes are long lost, he said. According to dad, the sweet and sour pork here is an all-time favourite. I must agree. Everyone can make sweet and sour pork, of course. But to take it beyond a high school science project of combining plain bottled ketchup and deep-fried pork requires some techniques. Or what we Cantonese call kung fu. At first glance, the blistering nuggets appeared to be the result of deep-frying in overheated oil, which usually causes the meat to be undercooked. Not at all, thankfully. In fact, each piece was cooked tender, pink to the core. Kung fu! Coat the crunchy golden fried batter with a balanced sauce of syrup, tomatoes and starch, and it's a colourful and appetizing dish.

I reported my menu to dad after that lunch and he seemed pleased that I had the pei pa duck, which was air-dried then deep-fried and yet, came just minimally greasy. This is a dish that has been with the restaurant for the longest time and it's really not difficult to understand its longevity. Addiction was that crack of the crispy skin followed by the taste of well-salted, succulent meat. If I'd proceeded with my plan for a bottle of affordable bubbly, nothing too fancy and difficult to pronounce, for this occasion, it would have paired this duck nicely, I'm sure.

My folks have been telling me that Sek Yuen is exemplary of classic Cantonese fare. But what is classic? I'm not sure if my limited knowledge and young tastebuds, furthermore marred by all these new fusion/confusion cuisines, grant me the ability to recognize such complexities - a skill that comes only with age and a long love for food. But I do know that good taste is always here to stay. And that's how I'll remember Sek Yuen.