Photo by Jarrett Wrisley
Chinese food in Southeast Asia is a beautiful thing. Here, the cooking traditions of China coalesce with the tastes of the tropics, resulting in an inimitable sort of fusion. Chefs in the south have a more colorful palette to work with, and the quality of produce--from seafood to greens--is better. I love eating Chinese food in Singapore, Penang or Kuala Lumpur. From my mainland perspective, it's just more exciting.
Sometimes, you also come across restaurants where the cooking remains the same. Southeast Asia hides old-school Chinese food unmarred by years of revolution, food shortages, and bourgeois purges. The best chefs kept their recipes, and their dignity, and trained the next generation. In the years under Mao, China's food culture suffered, while cooks in Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong soldiered on. Their food is better for it.
My friend and fellow food writer Chris and I discussed this as we ate our way through Kuala Lumpur a few weeks past. Silently we gobbled sour South Indian curries and zippy chutneys spooned on banana leaves, and rich Malay braises laced with lemongrass. But when it came to Chinese food, it was hard not to pick it apart--we had both lived in China for several years, covering the food scene there. But most of what we eating here seemed more precise than what we'd found in Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou.
There is a deep, dark secret amongst Chinese food writers, and that is consistently excellent Chinese food, in urban China, is not easy to find.
(There is a deep, dark secret amongst Chinese food writers, and that is consistently excellent Chinese food, in urban China, is not easy to find. You must turn over a lot of rocks in Shanghai before you stumble on something truly special.)
In K.L. there is a restaurant called Sek Yuen. The restaurant's open-air dining room buzzes with middle-aged Chinese, sipping tea and picking their way through soulful Cantonese meals. Mandarin, Hokkien and Cantonese dialects echo through the room; family members of all ages work the 61-year-old restaurant. Grandmothers slice ribbons of leeks and ginger in the alley outside, uncles skin ducks and sons squeeze meatballs, wrapping them in lacy caul fat. The kitchen is a bluish blur of woks and smoke, where bunches of spring onions hang over the cooking stations, making their way into crisp, garlicky stir-frys. And in the corner sits a pile of wood.
That wood fuels a barbecue that produces a duck like no other. Its lacquered skin shatters between your teeth. Its meat is smoky, rich and juicy--almost like a ham--and when dipped in a tart fruit sauce, this richness gains balance. There are countless dishes here we couldn't explore, and a few which we did--their roast pork is nearly as good, as was a plate of garlic strewn greens. Those kai lan were coiled into tight, bitter bunches. They tasted like Brussels sprouts left to blossom.
In between bites of duck in this aging restaurant, where chopstick-wielding arms have worn through the white formica, Chris and I talked about China's bright chandeliers and gilded, six-hundred seat dining rooms. There is little wood in China to fire a barbecue, and mom and pop restaurants are rapidly being supplanted by cavernous seafood halls. Fashion and status, especially in the big cities, often seems to trump good food.
Thousands of miles away, in this family-run restaurant, we looked at each other, and thought: "Is this what it used to be like?"
And it was like tasting lost possibilities.
(Thanks to my friend Robyn Eckhardt for recommending Sek Yuen. Robyn and her husband Dave lovingly chronicle their eating adventures at the excellent EatingAsia site. If you're traveling to Southeast Asia to eat, make sure to stop there first.)