Saturday, November 03, 2007

Dim sum the Malaysian way


MAI kow jai (Thai for don’t understand) was the impression of a Malaysian dim sum cognoscente when he sampled chicken feet at a coffee shop at Bangkok’s Chinatown.

“I did not like the taste of the kai kiok (chicken feet). Thais do not understand the subtleties of cooking dim sum,” said Peh Teik Hok, a 35-year-old dim sum chef with Ocean 52, a trendy restaurant in the city.

“They use the same ingredients – cinnamon, anise star, ginger, split onion – as dim sum chefs in Malaysia. But the flavour of Bangkok’s kai kiok is too strong compared with Kuala Lumpur’s,” explained Peh. “This is because Thais know what to put in the dish but they do not know how much to put.”

The chef also gave a thumb’s down to the coffee shop’s other dim sum fare such as har kau (the size of the prawn inside the steamed dumpling was very, very small) and siew mai (the dumpling only had pork and no prawn as it was sold “cheaply”).

His yam cha session in Chinatown was part of Peh’s mission to research on Bangkok’s dim sum palate as he was creating a dim sum menu for Ocean 52, which is in lebua, a luxury hotel.

Here’s his tasting note. The Bangkok-styled dim sum has a distinctive Thai flavour – spicy and strong. It taste dissimilar from KL’s dim sum that has a light flavour (similar to the Hong Kong dim sum).

The dim sum served in Bangkok’s five-star hotels is arooy (Thai for delicious) as it is exactly like that in Hong Kong because the chefs are from ? Hong Kong.

However, Peh complained that the dim sum selection in the five-star hotels was limited. “It is mostly prawns,” said the chef, who loves to fill his dumplings with fish and duck.

Peh is genetically engineered to love dim sum. He comes from a family that used to own a dim sum restaurant in Ipoh. “As a child I ate dim sum everyday,” said the chef, whose first dim sum sifu (master) was his father, Peh Kim Hong.

He left the family-owned restaurant to work as a dim sum chef in the Shangri-La Hotel Kuala Lumpur, Singapore Marriott Hotel and Yauatcha, the stylish London restaurant that is popular with celebrities.

Last year, Peh was headhunted by Ocean 52, a restaurant with a bird's-eye view of the Chao Phraya River and Bangkok, to transform dim sum dining in the Thai capital.

When asked why a Malaysian chef was picked for a cuisine that is synonymous with Hong Kong, Peh responded with a smile. “The Hong Kong chefs are from the old school. They insist on cooking Hong Kong-style dim sum,” he explained.

“What style does a Malaysian dim sum chef have? If my boss wants a hot and sour dish – which is popular in Europe - I’m prepared to create it.”

Ocean 52’s brief was: to create modern dim sum dishes with an Asian flavour. And in February, Peh experimented, referring to his old recipes for inspiration.

It was a trial and error process. In the end, Peh dished out 16 dim sum dishes that were uniquely his. For example, seabass wrapped in rice paper filled with cream sauce. The 280 baht (RM29.50) dish is simply delectable.

His favourite dish is Mooli puff with dried scallops and prawns (280 baht). “It has a light taste and a delightful smell. And it is crispy on the outside and soft on the inside,” he said.

It took him about two weeks to perfect the deep-fried dish. At first he used spring rolls. But it was not perfect. So he tried using flour but it tasted normal. Then he used glutinous rice. “That’s how I got the soft and hard texture,” he recounted.

His menu is not strictly modern. There is also traditional dim sum such as the 280 baht har kau (with fresh and big-sized prawn) and Shanghai chicken dumpling (140 baht or RM14.70)

“You still need to offer the old style as some customers demand a familiar taste,” he said.
Modern or traditional, for Peh all his dim sum are his babies. “I’m the one who makes them,” said the dim sum lover.

(Published in The Star on Nov 3, 2007)