Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Japanese Kitchen Tales

After a fruitless search for the latest issue of MPH Quill, MPH called to tell me that they saved two complimentary copies for me.

A Cook's Journey to Japan, reviewed in MPH Quill July - Sep 2010

Though I'd hoped the author would demonstrate more of her knowledge and experience in her field for the e-mail interview, it all turned out okay. The editorial team did a great job with the piece and the magazine in general, which looks more lifestylish now. A few good articles, particularly one from Ellen Whyte.

Do pick up a copy, but don't rush. As of now it seems they haven't gotten the issue to all their stores yet.

I'm still in the middle of getting snapshots of nearly every print article, write-up or mildly interesting listings I've worked on. Each item will be categorised and backdated to the day or month it was published.

Japanese kitchen tales
KW Wong reviews A Cook's Journey to Japan by Sarah Marx Feldner and interviews the cook about her long, heart-warming homecoming

original text; edited version published in MPH Quill, Jul-Sep 2010

Since he left the kitchen, trash-talking celeb chef Tony Bourdain has been hoisting his saucepan about a number of things: the US foie gras ban, radical vegans, factory farming and the fast food industry. Now, it’s people who can’t even fry an egg.

In one episode of No Reservations, he got some big name chefs to demonstrate how to roast chicken, make omelettes and prepare spaghetti in red sauce; Tony B himself showed us how to cut onions and make beef stew. Why? Because Bourdain claimed that Americans (and perhaps people in general) can’t seem to cook a thing right nowadays.

However, not all of us can ring up the likes of Thomas Keller or Jacques Pépin to arrange cooking lessons. And if I’m right, you might be tired of the usual Western-style classics of steak, pasta and English breakfasts.

May I suggest an alternative, such as, say, Sarah Marx Feldner’s cookbook, A Cook’s Journey to Japan: Fish Tales and Rice Paddies - 100 Homestyle Recipes from Japanese Kitchens?

“A cookbook?” you would probably scream. “How cheap! And is she even a cook?” you might ask. Well, she spent some time as a pastry chef, has a master’s degree in the art of collecting recipes and food research, and from what I’ve read, also tried her hand at many of the book’s dishes. Also, her mentor for the project and cookbook writer Elizabeth Andoh gushed at Feldner’s “passion of purpose” and “commitment to ‘doing it right’ (no haphazard shortcuts)”, so I suppose readers will be in pretty good hands.

More than just a repository of food terminology or recipes, A Cook’s Journey is as advertised: a record of Feldner’s personal culinary journey throughout Japan, the continuation of a love affair with the country that began when she first arrived to teach English. It’s like peeking into the kitchens of everyday Japanese, and by extension, their personalities, lives and culture, but without the screaming and flying utensils – always a good thing in anyone’s book.

Feldner calls the book “an act of desperation’, but it’s hardly a harried jumble of text and pictures. The author sticks with people from the smaller towns and rural areas, whom she finds more open, and willing to talk and share. The language speaks of her love for her adopted country – or did it adopt her? The characters she encountered seem to suggest the latter. The aunt of a friend, a friend of said aunt, generous café owners and chefs, a gallant director of an information centre and his fisherman friend, and so on. She also braves such dangers as an old man with “questionable” motives and getting stranded in paddy fields in the middle of nowhere. It is undoubtedly a labour of love.

The inclusive vibe of this culinary journal is somewhat upset by her goal of writing it for other Westerners like herself, scared stiff by more “foreign or difficult” ingredients and presentations found in other Japanese cookbooks. Even the recipes are organised according to how gwailos eat and cook. Curious Asian epicures might feel a bit left out, but that’s a minor hiccup. Already an old hand at Japanese cooking? This book might not be for you.

Home cooking may be less intimidating, but without knives, open flames and hot oil, you won’t accomplish much. Labelled pictures help a lot in introducing the tools and ingredients in Japanese home cooking. Learn how to slice and dice veggies (down to the millimetre in one instance), make real wasabi (grind the root in a slow circular motion with a sharkskin grater for best results), and how to make stock (dashi) and perfect sushi-style rice. The steps also serve as warm-ups for the recipes that follow, from snacks and salads to drinks and desserts.

Each recipe is well-documented; for the more complicated ones, Sarah-san takes you gently by the hand and shows you how to do it, slipping a few tips and trivia about the ingredients, the dishes, and the terrible, terrible things that can happen if you screw up. Of course, the author and publisher won’t be responsible if you happened to use a bad fish, lop off a finger or burn your house down while giving this book a go.

There are other useful appendices as well. Got a party? Can’t think of a menu for a surprise dinner a la Take Home Chef? Some menu suggestions are available. Where’s this Iwaki she stayed in? Nonplussed about Nagano’s location? Lo, at the end of the book, a map of Japan; Iwaki, is somewhere north of Tokyo.

Narrowing down the scope of cuisines and places to cover helps keep the book focused, so there really isn’t much room for improvement. The omission of unagi (eel) may have been deliberate, as none of the ingredients mentioned require special handling; eel blood is toxic.

All in all, a nicely done visual feast and window into the lunchboxes of everyday Japanese, and a gift to anyone who wants to cook different. Like most good cookbooks this is not one to read on an empty stomach. Even pictures of a simple rice-and-peas dish will send you rushing towards the nearest eatery, Japanese or otherwise.

A Cook's Journey to Japan
Fish Tales and Rice Paddies: 100 Homestyle Recipes from Japanese Kitchens

Sarah Marx-Feldner
Tuttle Publishing (2010)
160 pages
ISBN: 978-4805310113

Saturday, 3 July 2010

More Than Just A Burger King

Some "Motormouth from Ipoh" pointed this place to a friend. After a dinner there, she decided it would be a good idea if I wrote about this place. Which I did. We stopped by after a weekend assignment/getaway - the same day the article was published.

Despite the warnings of "parking hell" and "motorcyclists from hell" people were still flocking to the place; several groups, including families of four to seven, had to be turned away because there were no more seats.

Response to the food was good. My eating buddy even heard a mom with several kids go, "So cheap!"

Hooked at first bite
The parking is terrible and the double-parking even worse, but the burgers and other offerings at Nambawan Restaurant are just too darn hard to resist

first published in The Star, 03 July 2010

One — OK, two — things about Kuala Lumpur that bug determined gourmands: an apparent scarcity of really good places to eat and the need to travel ungodly distances to reach any such treasures unearthed by those who have gone there before.

While reminiscing our visits to a recently-reviewed restaurant, some Motormouth from Ipoh (at www.j2kfm.com) told Alex about another place that served great pork dishes.

"Do you know where this Nambawan Restaurant is?"

Of course I didn't know.

Ergo, Google Maps — a useful tool. However, we took a few wrong turns along the way to what would be a good meal because I didn't take down the directions. At least I remembered, while researching the place, that the Masak-Masak Lady (at masak-masak.blogspot.com) had noted that Old Town White Coffee was near the premises.

Driving at night didn't help either. There were several hazards, notably the motorcyclists, who tend to ride without lights or helmets on.

Parking at Sri Manja Square was bad — as was the double-parking — the night we were at Nambawan Restaurant and Café for the first time. A family of three and one other patron were the only customers there when we arrived. The whole dining area was open-ended — the 99 Speedmart opposite can be seen at one end.

From where we sat, we could see the blown-up photos of choice menu picks painted on the wall, both featuring bacon, along with some bad copywriting encouraging patrons to "Taste your sense to infinity".

The air-conditioning failed to keep the warm and humid weather outdoors at bay. If some of the menu items look unsettlingly foreign, take a deep breath, calm down, call the waitress or manageress and ask for clarification. They'd be happy to assist.

I settled for the Stone-charbroiled Pork Belly with roasted potatoes and garden salad (RM13.90), and the proudly touted "100% Home Made Pork Burger" (RM6.90).

"Small-town prices," commented Alex but her eyes were city-sized when she realised that I had ordered two dishes.

It appeared that the place has only one chef, who is said to have earned his cooking chops from New Zealand. Nambawan has been around for two years; it turns three next month. No clue as to why they opened shop at a neighbourhood that, at first sight, won't move those pork dishes quickly enough.

The place has its regulars — people who were hooked at first bite, it seems, and braved parking hell for return visits. Can they handle a full house?

By the time the pork belly reached our table we were probably hungry enough to tackle the rest of the pig. Memories of pork bellies past melted like the chunk I'd cut and put inside my mouth.

A little bit salty, but the flavours — oh, how they gushed forth as the molars crushed the firm, glistening fat and the bits of tender, juicy flesh. Every bite was pleasure, with or without the apple sauce, so astringent and tangy it was almost citrus-like.

When the pork burger arrived I took the top half of the bun and wiped the sauce from what was once a plate of grilled pork belly. The patty wasn't really big, but it held a nice surprise. It was tender, juicy and had a nice texture, and most of all, virtually none of that gamey pork smell. A hint of fragrant herb might be responsible, and seemed familiar.


"No, it's parsley," said the manageress.

Yes, I had two dishes, from which Alex stole the occasional bite; she already had dinner prior. Small-town prices mean small-town portions, after all. But every bite was so darn good.

"Dish number three!" I thumped the table, with my sights set on the Pan-fried Chicken and Bacon Roll.

But then Alex spoiled it all by announcing that she was tired and had to go home.

I sneaked back when Alex was out of town over a week later. The manageress did say their "100% Home-made Beef Burger" was also worth a try.

The pan-fried chicken and bacon wasn't really rolled. The centrepiece was one slab of chicken that was butterfly-cut with a slice of bacon folded in. Resting on pieces of roasted potato and garnished with a similar salad, it was a tasty, healthier version of the KFC Double Down "sandwich".

The 100% home-made beef burger?

Upon dissection, I found that like the pork burger, it was rather loosely packed, allowing for a burger that was juicier and easier to chew. Besides flecks of parsley, there were also what looked like black peppercorns.

It's not just charbroiled pork belly, burgers, steaks or pastas — weekend specials may include Lamb Shank in Red Wine Sauce, Barbecued Spare Ribs and Roasted Pork Belly, which is different from the charbroiled version. From what I've eaten so far, they're all worth a try.

Days later, I came back for a third visit and a second go at the charbroiled pork belly. Am I becoming addicted?

Nambawan Restaurant and Café
10, Jalan PJS3/48
Sri Manja Square One
Taman Sri Manja
6½ Miles, Off Old Klang Road
46000 Petaling Jaya


Lunch: 12pm-3pm
Dinner: 6pm-10pm

Closed every other Monday

+6016-224 1533 (Yap)
+6013-263 2772 (Gilbert)

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