More than sushi

David Tay of Sushi Monzta, Johor Baru
More than sushi at Sushi Monzta

The moment you step into Sushi Monzta, you are ushered into a charming café with clean lines and subdued colours that work together to soothe and relax.  The casual dining ambience invites you to unwind and gear your tastebuds to savour the freshest sashimi and your favourite sushi selections in a menu of Japanese cuisine.  The tidy and comfy café along Jalan Perang, one of Taman Pelangi’s food streets, is fast becoming popular with fans of Japanese food for several reasons.

Behind his counter, sushi chef David Tay Siew Meng, 53, works almost non-stop to prepare roll after roll of various types of maki while his wife, Alice, helps to serve the freshly made sushi rolls.  He and his wife have a history in Japanese cuisine because in 1988, they started working in a Japanese restaurant in New York City. 

When Tay started to be trained as an apprentice under Chef Hirotakaida of Okura Japanese Restaurant in New York’s Third Avenue between 33rd and 34th Streets, his main tasks were mopping floors, washing dishes and chopping food.  This was part of his training to know every aspect of the kitchen operations and learnt the discipline to make use of slow times to clean and maintain every area of the business so that everything was always spotlessly clean. 

Smoked Duck on stick [Left], Teriyaki Scallop and Smoked
Duck on skewers, Spider Roll [Background]
Later he also learnt the art of preparing Kyodo style food from Chef Toshi in Mishima Japanese Restaurant on Lexington Avenue 23rd Street and the principles of cooking without using garlic, oil and monosodium glutamate (MSG). 

When Tay and his family returned to Johor Baru in 1996, he applied these skills when he worked with Tokugawa Japanese Restaurant, the second Japanese restaurant in the city.  After 13 years there, Tay and his wife pooled their resources to start their own venture in Sushi Monzta.

Since July 2010, former Tokugawa customers have been finding their way to Sushi Monzta and are now regulars, thrilled to continue enjoying Tay’s creations. Using ingredients from various sources locally and abroad, especially fresh seafood from Scandinavian countries, Tay is whipping up popular choices like California inside-out rolls and Spider rolls.  A closer look at these favourite rolls shows that Tay believes in using the right balance of vinegared rice and ingredients so that you can taste an equal amount with every bite.

Right balance of rice and fillings in
California inside-out Roll
Don’t worry.  Spider Rolls does not have any spiders in them.  They are so named because Tay designed a maki with crispy soft shell crabs and creatively arranged their legs on the roll to resemble spiders.  

Fans of smoked duck will enjoy the juicy chunks of meat served on skewers and a teriyaki scallop and smoked duck combo.  In this set, asparagus sticks are rolled in a juicy slice of smoked duck and skewered along with a scallop and mushroom.  

Ask for these off-menu yakitori creations that are best savoured as appetizers with sips of warm sake.  Another favourite appetizer must be kawahagi – chewy sticks of white fish skin.

Sushi Monzta has an interesting menu of fresh sashimi, teriyaki, tempura, noodles and rice as well as a wide selection of sushi.  For dessert, there’s not only Green Tea ice-cream but real Rum ‘n Rasin ice-cream.  Located at No. 22 Jalan Perang, Taman Pelangi, the café is open daily from 11.30am to 3pm and from 5pm to 10pm, except on Tuesday.  Tel: 607 – 3311172.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 19 May 2011

Painful visits to photo studio

Our 1967 family photo taken at
Chau Wah Photo Studio with Peggy in
front row, 2nd from Right
Poke around your parents’ house and you may find family photos taken in a local photo studio at different stages of your life.  In those days it was an annual tradition for families to take formal family photos, probably to chart the children’s growth through the years.  I remember our studio shots were taken once a year, usually around Christmas or Chinese New Year when we were smartly dressed in new clothes. 

Now only a handful of these traditional photo studios which our older generation used to patronize, are still in business in Johor Baru.  The corner shop, No. 25 Jalan Ibrahim, opposite K. Abdul Wahab & Co and Johor Central Store, was once occupied by Chau Wah Photo Studio, a business which is now re-branded as Fotolaju Imaging.  This was where our family went regularly for our formal family photos. 

Among the few established photo studios are royal photographers who are so skilled in their profession that they were hand-picked to take the royal family’s official portraits.  Some rare black-and-white photos of Sultan Ibrahim Al-Masyhur ibni Abu Bakar who was Sultan of Johor from 1895 to 1959 and his wife, Lady Marcella with their daughter, Tunku Miriam, are still displayed in Johor Heng Photo Studio at Jalan Ibrahim.  This first-floor photo studio is now a destination in our city’s Iskandar Puteri Heritage Trail.

Photo studios have always played a vital role in weddings.  Unlike modern couples who complete all their indoor and outdoor photography on a separate date, couples in the olden days would fit a photo studio visit into their day’s itinerary while they were fully decked out in their wedding finery.  Their studio shots would probably be an economical package with a few formal poses and only one photo to be enlarged and framed.

Besides operating their studios, these professional photographers were also engaged to take quality photos for State and official events.  I still remember observing the photographer from Film Star Photo Studio, armed with bulky cameras, sophisticated lens and flash, on various field assignments including our school concerts and sports day.  His studio shifted its premises several times and is now located at Jalan Trus.

Ah kong's family photo with my mum [Back Row 4th from Left]
and Aunty Sylvia holidng a plastic fish [Front Row far Left]
Recently I was fascinated to see a wooden rattle in Johor Heng Photo Studio which the photographer used to attract the attention of babies and young children for that precise moment to capture a perfect picture.  This reminded me of ah kong’s (grandfather) family photo which taken when their youngest daughter, Aunty Sylvia, was a restless toddler and the photographer provided a plastic fish to amuse her.  It appears that these resourceful photographers were also equipped with toys to distract their young clients.

A friend who showed me his studio photo taken at age 11, asked me to spot something unusual in that photo.  At first I did not see anything strange because he was smiling into the camera, dressed in a smart shirt and long trousers but looking closer, I realized that his shoes were a few sizes too big for him.  He confessed that he insisted on wearing those pointed shoes and felt good dressed fashionably for his formal studio pose.

Unlike him, I loathe posing for the camera probably because I was put off by stressful experiences in the photo studio.  When our family stood in front of that ancient wooden box shutter camera, the meticulous photographer would shuffle us around to get us organized in the most symmetrical pose.  He would even show us how to place our feet – one in front of the other with ankles together and feet apart at a 45-degree angle – and tilt our faces a little to the left or right and by that time, I would have lost all patience to hold that smile or pose prettily for him.

“Siew, siew, tey,” meaning, ‘smile a little’ in Cantonese, the photographer would say repeatedly to coax me to force a smile onto my frowning face.  It didn’t help when I had to wear dresses that had sewn-in crinoline can-cans or prickly petticoats that scratched and irritated me.  So when I wore such dresses, I also wore a scowl because I had to fight the temptation to squirm with discomfort in front of the camera. 

Another formal family photo
with me sitting on mum's lap
The studio usually gave us proof-copies to check and would touch-up the final photos to make us look most flattering but at that time there was still not yet any technology to photo-edit in a smile.  Some of us are not naturally photogenic so I always worried that when I tried to force a smile, I would turn out looking hideous.  Thankfully, I managed to cooperate with the photographer and our formal family photos turned out all right. 

It’s seems quite impossible to imagine but there was a time when photography was the domain of the professionals.  With advanced technology in digital cameras and built-in cameras in mobile-phones, almost everyone is an amateur photographer now.  Our visit to the studio these days would likely be only to snap standard passport photos. 

After years of posing for formal studio photos, you may think I have mastered some camera posing techniques but no, not yet.  I’m still uncomfortable in front of a camera and when my friends view our group shots, they will ask, “Eh, where are you?” because I’m seldom in the photos.  And I tell them, “I’m the one behind the camera.”

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 16 May 2011

Come fly with me!

Strapped in and ready for take off!
Once upon a time, my only experience with light aircrafts was from watching Indiana Jones movies and thrilling to how this swashbuckling hero made narrow escapes by flying off in small planes among other stunts like running on top of trains and balancing under moving trucks. 

Harrison Ford, the actor in the role of Jones, also played a grumpy, wet-blanket of a pilot in romantic comedy, Six Days, Seven Nights, whose private plane crashed into an island in the South Pacific. 

Shane's Warrior II Piper plane
But my most poignant images of light aircraft were in the opening scenes of the epic drama, The English Patient, where Ralph Fiennes in the role of Count Almasy, flew over the Sahara Desert with his lover’s remains.

Slipping into a snug cockpit of a private plane was but a dream until I met Shane Lim, a flying enthusiast with the Johor Flying Club and was invited to fly with them.  That morning on which we planned to fly started clear and bright but turned overcast and threatened to rain. 

By mid-day, the dark clouds cleared but it was a bit hazy as we headed out to the hanger adjacent to the Sultan Ismail International Airport in Senai.  When I was strapped into my seat on Shane’s Warrior II Piper plane, William Lee, the club’s president, gave me my pre-flight briefing with sufficient tips to ensure that I will not do anything silly during the flight.

Coming in for landing on the runway of
Sultan Ismail International Airport, Senai
Just as in the movies, the small plane taxied briefly and gently lifted off the runway and we soared over a mosaic of greenery – close enough for me to see the tops of oil palm plantations and a variety of pretty plants in sprawling nurseries of garden centers in that area.  From the window of a passenger plane, I may still see the view outside but in a light aircraft, it was so different.  A wide expanse of the landscape spread all around us and I had a breath-taking bird’s eye view of the whole terrain!

“Take over controls,” I heard Shane say over my headphones and when my hands reached for the yoke or half steering wheel in front of me, I forgot to echo his words in acknowledgement. 

I remembered too late and quickly blurted out, “Take over controls,” and was promptly reminded to relax my hold because I was gripping the yoke too firmly.  It was both heady and humbling to feel the pull of the cross winds in my hands as we flew across the sky so freely, just like birds.  When I was giving control back to him I dutifully said, “Handing over control,” and Shane echoed my words with sheer discipline and practiced ease as he took the controls back from me.

Shane Lim [Left] with William Lee of JFC
When I stepped out of the cockpit, William, who was watching from the ground, asked, “How was it?”  I welcomed the cool winds that whipped around me because apart from the sweltering heat in the non-air conditioned cockpit, it was simply a “wow” experience! 

As I was lending a hand to help Shane and William shift the aircraft back into its parking position, it occurred to me that I’m so privileged to have various exciting experiences in the sky, on land, in the sea and even on surging rivers, wild with rapids. 

Come to think of it, I’ve had my share of fun from riding not only in boats, luxury cruise liner, trains and planes but also on horses, elephants and carriages, go-karts and dune-buggies, and now a light aircraft!  With all these adventures, I’m just looking forward to the next!

14 May 2011

Happy Mother's Day

Mum and dad with my sisters and I [next to mum]
at the Lily Pond of Istana Gardens Johor Baru
A day to return a mother's love

One of the perks of living in Johor Baru, in my view, must be enjoying clear reception of Singapore television and radio and like many JB folks I used to tune in, especially in the years when there was no cable television. 

I know Chinese-speaking Johoreans still enjoy Media Corp’s quality Chinese TV dramas because I saw how they mobbed the star of hit series, The Little Nyonya, when she made a guest appearance at a local shopping mall. 

I don’t follow any Chinese series but I have fond memories of Growing Up, a Singapore English language drama series that was set between the 1960’s and 1980’s and featured the struggles of growing up with the Tay family.  

Our family photo with me sitting on
mum's lap - She was wearing that dress!
The series which debuted in 1996 had six seasons with the final season screened in December 2001.  I was among thousands of viewers on both sides of the causeway who followed the family drama with Lim Kay Tong in the lead role as Mr Tay and his wife, Mrs Tay or Soo Mei, played by Wee Soon Hui.  Youths could easily identify with Gary, their rebellious and bad-tempered eldest son played by Andrew Seow, but I’m sure every mother could relate to Soo Mei, who was the epitome of motherhood.

Even in her deteriorating health, Mrs Tay still made sacrifices for her family and I can picture that scene where this sickly lady struggled to sew at a manual sewing machine.  I’m sure viewers in Johor Baru were glued to their TV’s for the final episode when the drama climaxed with the passing of Mrs Tay.  And I wept shamelessly along with all the fans of Growing Up who were gathered around her hospital bed with the Tay family. 

Recently as I flipped through dad’s old photo albums, I discovered a photo of my sisters and me, taken next to some canna blossoms along the former Lido Beach.  We were standing somewhere on the seafront with Singapore clearly on the horizon.  But my attention was focused on the same shorts we, the three sisters were wearing.

Mum somehow liked to dress us in similar outfits, very often in a variety of different colours like the same pajamas in blue for Ruby, pink for Pearly and green for me.  While it was not unusual for us to dress alike, I noticed that those shorts in the photo were made with material in a pattern that looked very familiar.  Later as I reviewed other older photos, I understood why I recognized that material.

Three sisters [Left to Right] Ruby, Pearly and Peggy,
wearing matching shorts at Lido Beach
It felt rather bitter-sweet because I realised that the three pairs of shorts were made from fabric that once was mum’s dress. 

At that time, mum’s dresses were tailored by her aunt from imported fabrics and as was the fashion those days, many yards were used for a pleated skirt.  I saw from old photos that mum used that favourite dress over many of our growing years and when it was time to retire that dress, she saved the fabric to sew into shorts for us.

I thought it was so Maria-like because my first encounter of fabric recycling was in The Sound of Music, the Rogers & Hammerstein musical.  I remember that scene where the captain and his girlfriend spotted children climbing trees and enjoying themselves outdoors, wearing shorts and casual clothes but could not recognize them because they were not in their uniforms.  That was because Maria, their governess, used the curtains in her bedroom to sew into casual clothes for them to enjoy being active children again.

Mum and I at Japanese Garden of Johor
Baru's Istana Garden - She was wearing
that favourite dress - again!
Similarly mum made good use of the quality fabric from her former dress to sew our shorts on her faithful Singer sewing machine.  Nowadays we shop for children’s new clothes so often that it’s humbling to realise that it was not easy to dress three growing girls in those days.  I remember wearing a lot of hand-me-downs but mum always ensured that we lacked nothing and always had new clothes every Christmas.

Like Soo Mei, our mothers also do a great deal for their families, often out of duty but when mums do things out of love, drudgery turns into delight.  Mothers through every generation continue doing what they know best, often selflessly for their families.  So on each Mother’s Day, we try to find ways to show how much we love our mum and how much she means to us, in some tangible way.

In the recent Mother’s Day weekend, my mum took a well-deserved break and enjoyed many treats including a variety of sumptuous meals in Italian, Indian and Chinese restaurants.  Since we have three mothers in our immediate family, Andrew, my resourceful nephew did his homework on Johor Baru restaurants and picked those that offered special deals and discounts for mums.  In fact, one American restaurant’s bold promotion offered mothers a discount percentage based on their age.

As we picked our choices from the wide menu, our thoughts were with our 99-year old grandmother who was celebrating the day over a special meal of soft food with Aunty Polly’s family in Kuala Lumpur.  Considering this special discount accorded to mums, Andrew wondered if the restaurant would honour their offer if we brought his great-grandma along because she would virtually enjoy a free meal with 99% off her order.  We shared a laugh over our wishful thinking, reassured that grandma was enjoying her soft food in the comfort of home.  Happy Mother's Day, mums and grandmas!

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 11 May 2011

More about our Mother's Day celebrations 2011 with mum:

Mum helping herself to a delightful Indian spread at
Mother's Day luncheon in Village Briyani Cafe, Johor Baru

Andrew cutting yummy Strawberry Cheesecake made by his wife,
 Val [next to him] at one of our Mother's Day celebrations this year


Hakka ham cha

Hakka ham cha with green tea brew
For 13 years the Liew family has been serving their recipe of fragrant ham cha at Volcano Coffee House in Kampung Baru, Kelapa Sawit. 

While Liew Lee Lee and her sisters serve their customers in the restaurant, their younger brother, Chee Chong, is the chief cook.  Regulars occupy the few tables to eat in but behind the counter, boxes are stacked and ready because this delicious Hakka meal is also popular for takeaways.

Ham cha or “thunder tea rice” is synonymous with the Hakka community who are best known for their cuisine.  The Hakka are the largest dialect group of Chinese in Malaysia after the Hokkien and in Johor, the Kulaijaya and Kluang districts are predominantly Hakka.

Ham cha is often considered the healthier choice and a guilt-free meal because of the vegetarian ingredients and health-inducing tea brew.  Then again, meat-lovers are welcome to add on the famous Hakka yong tau foo, beancurd stuffed with minced meat and cha yok, deep-fried slices of pork belly marinated in nam yee or fermented red beancurd.  Volcano offers a variety of meat toppings for you to add to your meal.

Liew Lee Lee serving green tea soup
while her sister looks on
You have to acquire a taste for this Hakka meal and connoisseurs of ham cha will say that the secret is in the green tea brew that’s served with the rice.  In fact, the distinct identity of this dish is derived from its interesting tea. 

To create the base for this green tea, ingredients like toasted peanuts and sesame seeds, mint leaves, basil leaves, sweet potato leaves and tea leaves are traditionally ground together in an earthen bowl with the trunk of a guava tree. 

The rice set includes a bowl of rice, fragrant with garlic and shallots, topped with a variety of chopped vegetables and served with a bowl of this strong green tea. 

At Volcano, seven types of ingredients are prepared separately before being added to the rice and served.  They includes sayur manis (sauropus androgynus or star gooseberry), long beans, cabbage, dried beancurd, pickled radish, red beans and toasted groundnuts. 

Variety of meat toppings to add to
your vegetarian ham cha meal
There is no hard and fast rule on how to eat this delicious meal but the Hakka way is to drown the rice with the tea brew and slurp it all up.  When the green brew is added to the rice and ingredients, it will enhance the flavour of the food but you can choose to eat the rice and drink the soup separately. 

Whichever way you decide to eat it, connoisseurs of quality ham cha sets Volcano’s ham cha apart as one of the best in the community.

Ham cha here is served in three sizes, Regular, Large and Extra-Large.  Add-on meat toppings are charged separately by per piece prices.  Volcano Coffee House is located at No. 8091, Kampung Baru, Kelapa Sawit, 81000 Kulaijaya.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 13 May 2011

Teacher D reminisces

Dorothy Pereira-Gale, now lives in Australia
Dorothy Pereira-Gale, 68, a retired teacher and lecturer, and former governess of the Agong’s two children, now resides in Townsville, Queensland, Australia.

I was born in Johor Baru, the only girl among three brothers, and was educated at Johor Baru’s HIJ Convent.  My favourite subjects were History and English Literature and I remember how Sister Xavier and Mrs Ramakrishnan made these subjects come alive and relevant. 

Their approach encouraged me to develop an understanding and appreciation of the world of William Shakespeare and I met scheming politicians and star-crossed lovers, and got involved with nations in turmoil, high drama and comedy. 

Dorothy [Left] as Tony Lumpkin, in 1958 play,
"She stoops to conquer" in HIJ Convent JB
There was total acceptance among all nationalities in school and we were never asked to “work at it.”  Sister Xavier was the principal when I joined the staff at the JB Convent and because she believed that musical activities improved students’ social skills and helped them be more adept at forming friendships, extra curricular activities took on with astonishing speed and vigor. 

The JB Convent had tremendous support from the Johor Royal Family, particularly the late Sultan Ismail and Tunku Shahariah, and it was the first school in Johor to start Guidance and Counselling services for students, with parents and teacher interviews, twice a year.

For 35 years I lived a carefree single life but when I got married to Geof Gale and moved to Australia, I had to juggle work and housework, adapt to a new culture and learn to live in close proximity with another person (my husband). 

Dorothy and husband, Geof, and their daughters,
Joanne [Left] and Marianne [Right]

Back home in JB, I had maids who pampered me but in Australia, when I opened my eyes in the morning it was all systems go.  With two babies, my life was hectic because I was expected to act like a lady, look like a girl, think like a man and work like a dog!

In 2000, I was one of eleven people chosen to teach English to trainees at the Qatar Petroleum Training Centre in Doha and I was struck by the honesty of the Qatari people. 

It was a wonderful two-year experience as I also gave private English lessons to a prince in a palace.  Every tea-time the best chocolates and Middle Eastern sweets were served so I guess the Person-Up-Above had a wicked sense of humour because I’m an Insulin dependent diabetic.

Dorothy [Left] with the royal couple, His Highness
the Agong [King] and Her Highness, the Queen

After 27 years, I retired as a Principal Lecturer from Tafe College, Perth, and accepted an interesting and challenging position as governess to the children of the Yang DiPertuan Agong or King of Malaysia, who were then studying in Perth. 

I was struck by the Agong’s insistence that the children put their heart and soul into their school work and allowed me to discipline them and inculcate good study habits in them.  I believe His Highness, a graduate from Sheffield University, UK, knows that education is a birthright and a quality education is the only tool that a child has to turn dreams into reality. 

I remember one day as we were having lunch, the Crown Prince who was then aged 9, said, “Teacher D, today I was called up at assembly because I had the 1st prize for Maths in all the Standard H’s.”  Before I could say anything, he went on, “I was so nervous walking up and I couldn’t believe it, but you know what Teacher D, I said “Shukor to Allah!”  I was so happy and proud of him that my eyes brimmed with tears. 

Dorothy Pereira, winner of the 1966 National
level Sharahan or Oratory Competiion in KL

I have been coming back to Johor Baru every year for the last 28 years and in those days when I cross the causeway and taste the pungent wafts from Sungai Segget – then I know I’m home. 

Every time I’m in JB, I have lunch and tea appointments with my former students and my daughters can’t quite understand this and they ask, “How come your students still bother to look you up?”  I think it is because I have always tried to keep their best interests at heart and nurture their particular talents, whatever they might have been.

Johor Baru was once a clean town but with many developments in and around the city, this has changed.  My late father, Mark S. Pereira, who retired as a Senior Health Inspector with the JB Town Council, would turn in his grave at the appalling condition and filth of Jalan Wong Ah Fook and the streets around Jalan Siu Nam. 

I know the MPJB authorities are doing their best but their best is still not good enough – not in this day and age where planning, knowledge and expertise are available. 

In school, I couldn’t take up ballet because of my belly but now in retirement, some friends and I do belly dancing and we have lots of laughs.  I also volunteer to visit Indonesian prisoners in jails because few people in Australia speak the Indonesian language and those who do, want nothing to do with them.  

I’m so Malaysian that every 31 August, I fly our national flag and invite friends over for a National Day celebration and enjoy some Malaysian food.  I tried to be Australian yet I still eat Malaysian food to comfort me, read Indian literature to inspire me and listen to Malay ghazal music, old Chinese love songs and Indian evening ragas, to reach me deep down.  As I let go of my remembered youth and acknowledge my age, I realise that the memories that surface (there are many) need to be gathered and harvested with gratitude and compassion.

This interview was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets in April 2011

Wow, pau!

Yon Lai pau kept warm in a steamer
Wow, these are great pau!

Long before we were familiar with burgers, there were pau.  The pau, essentially a Chinese burger because it has a tasty meat filling inside the pastry, can be a snack or a full-meal.  Just like 24-hour fast food, the ubiquitous pau can be eaten for breakfast and supper or to satisfy any snack attack.

For more than 10 years, pau by Yon Lai has been popular among locals in Kulaijaya and as the fame of this superior quality pau spread far and wide, travellers passing through the town will not fail to stop for a pau snack and leave with takeaways. 

Natalie Ngu presents a tray of delicious
pau and lor mai kai
These delicious dumplings taste best when they are eaten hot but even when they are bought back and heated up at home, they still taste great.  

Natalie Ngu and her family in Kulai are the makers of these popular Yon Lai traditional pau and a range of dim sum favourites.  Their father, originally from Sitiawan, had a successful business making and selling pau in Kuala Lumpur for over 20 years.  Using their father’s recipe and experience, they have established the Yon Lai brand name with a reputation for superior quality pau among traditional dumpling connoisseurs. 

Yon Lai makes three main varieties of pau with savoury fillings of sliced pork meat or sang yuk, barbecued pork or char siew, and sweet fillings of tau sar (red bean paste) and leen yong (lotus seed paste).  The sang yuk pau comes in two sizes, one of which is a tai pau or big pau, which is big enough to be a satisfying small meal.

Amazing how the top-skin lifts and peels so smoothly!

Yon Lai pau are made fresh daily and production starts from 2.00am every night.  While these dumplings were traditionally handmade, today the demand for at least 10,000 pieces of pau and lor mai kai (steamed glutinous rice with chicken) per day in Kulai alone requires the help of some automation in the production process.  A skillful blend of hand kneading and machine mixing is used to make their special pau pastry so soft, fluffy and delicious. 

So what makes Yon Lai pau so popular?  They are not only affordable, tasty and totally satisfying, its pastry is thin and the stuffing, generous.  The quality of this pau pastry is so superior that the filmy top-skin can be amazingly easy to lift and peel off smoothly.  And just like any good quality pau pastry, it does not cling to your teeth as you chew into its juicy insides.

Thin pastry and generous fillings in Yon Lai pau
There’s a secret to how the sweet fillings of tau sar and leen yong in Yon Lai pau are of an unusually smooth blend.  Their experience and high quality standards in production have certainly helped this family to establish themselves firmly as the makers of superior quality pau in Johor. 

Try cutting open a steaming hot sweet dumpling and see for yourself how the filling slowly oozes out, just like a chocolate lava dessert.

Restoran Yon Lai is the parent shop with four other outlets in and around Kulai, namely Yoon Lai, Yeen Lai, Soon Lai and a stall in TJ Mart, Saleng.  They also supply to outlets in Taman Mt Austin, Taman Bukit Indah and Taman Setia Indah.  Restoran Yon Lai is located at No. 37 Jalan Anggerik 2, Taman Kulai Utama, 81000 Kulaijaya, Johor.  Tel: 607 – 662 1600.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 6 May 2011

Volcanic sizzlers

Slab of salmon, scallops and shrimps sizzling on hot stone
I thought I was walking into the ruins of some forgotten civilization when I step into the restaurant.  A towering carved stone wall overlooked elevated wooden boardwalks where tables are set under the branches of leafy green trees.  I look closer at the floor-to-ceiling stone wall with large bas relief etchings that depict mythological scenes with what appears to be a monkey and elephant. 

Subdued lighting from hanging bowls of flaming fire and the eroded uneven edges on the top of the wall creates a special ambience that aptly matches the stonegrill meal that I’m looking forward to enjoy.

I choose a table on the elevated boardwalk and a waiter was waiting, ready with an open menu.  As I scan the list of recommendations on the menu, I keep one eye on the other tables to see what the most popular choices are with other customers.  I’ve learnt that this is a sure way to ascertain a restaurant’s best sellers and it turns out that tom yam seafood noodles are very popular.  Now this is certainly a hot, hot meal because tom yam is already spicy and here it’s served on a sizzling hot rock!

Hot rocks

The unique experience in Sizzling Stonegrill is how food is served on super-heated natural volcanic rocks.  The stonegrill is a dry cooking method that does not use any added fats or oils as the heat will sear the meat without burning.  These slabs of volcanic rock, super-heated to 400 degrees centigrade will sear meat quickly and lock in all the natural juices and nutrients.  A peek at other customers with seafood, meats, poultry and vegetables sizzling before them shows me that it’s a fun way to cook a healthy and nutritious meal and enjoy eating it at leisure.

This is the way to cut up the salmon into bite sizes
As I make a mental note to be extra careful not to land my fingers on that hot rock, the waiter is back again with my seafood platter. 

I watch the generous chunk of fresh salmon sizzling conspicuously next to the shrimps and scallops and wonder what to do next but my helpful waiter intuitively picked up the fork and knife and started to turn the ingredients on the hot stone.  The mouth-watering sizzle of natural oils tickled my nostrils and I can’t wait to taste my stone-grilled seafood.

Real taste

With a few deft movements, the chunk of salmon was cut into bite size pieces and neatly arranged on the stone slab, while the shrimps and scallops were turned to ensure that they were evenly cooked.  By this time, I’m ready to do my own cooking so when the waiter released the fork and knife and left the table, I take over quite confidently.  I do not want my seafood to over-cook so I move them onto a side plate to reheat later when I’m ready to slowly savour their juicy flavours.

Mussels sprinkled with rosemary, sizzling in their half shells
While I’m getting the hang of cooking on the hot stone, Datuk Freddie Long Hoo Hin, the proprietor, was all smiles as he came over to join me.  His choice from the menu is fresh mussels and it came served in half-shells, sizzling on a slab of hot stone. 

“Its all natural flavour,” said Long as he shifted the mussels on the hot stone to cook more evenly and invited me to help myself to the freshly grilled mussels.  I select a plump mussel lightly flavoured with a sprinkle of rosemary and it lifted easily out from its shell. 

Quite sure that it will not burn my lips, I pop it into my mouth and tasted its quintessential chewy texture, so rich and full of natural goodness.

As we enjoyed our meal Long, a lawyer by profession and former Johor state tourism and environment chairman, regaled me with his interesting tales of old Johor Baru.  Coming back to the menu favourites in Sizzling Stonegrill, he agreed that piping hot tom yam seafood noodles are his regular customers’ preferred choice.  For meat lovers, succulent seafood and juicy New Zealand beef steak come in a close second.

Juicy NZ beef steak sizzling on hot stone grill
I must not neglect my scallops, shrimps and salmon cooling on the side plate so I place a few pieces back on the hot stone to warm before I take my time to slice and savour the tasty morsels with a fresh garden salad.  For an extra zing, I dip the seafood into a special condiment of freshly ground chilly tinged with tangy fresh lime. 

I find this most agreeable because unlike other chilly sauces, this sauce did not drown out the meat flavours but instead, enhanced it in a rather refreshing way.

Fast Facts

While hot-stone cooking is the main meal attraction at Sizzling Stonegrill, there is also an ala carte menu of cooked food for people on the go.  Choose from rice, noodles and pasta dishes and a range of appetizers as well as fresh fruit juices.  Don’t miss their signature freshly made soursop juice that’s both healthy and delicious.

The Sizzling Stonegrill flagship is on Level 2 of Jusco Tebrau City with more outlets located at Level 3, Plaza Pelangi, Basement 1 of Johor Baru City Square and ground floor of Jusco Bukit Indah.  Their first outlet outside of Johor is in Malacca on the ground floor of Aeon Bandaraya Melaka shopping centre.  All outlets are ready to serve food by 11am and are open daily till 10pm.

A version of this article was published in The Straits Times, Life & Times on 5 May 2011

Indian snacks

Variety of vadai bought from a hawker stall in
a village on the way to Chinnakuppam, South India
Loving my Indian snacks

My earliest memories of Indian snacks must be the taste of putu mayam or string-hoppers eaten with brown sugar and shredded fresh coconut. 

I remember how the loose brown sugar would usually cake when exposed for too long but I used to enjoy crunching into the hardened chunks.  It was also probably the first time that I had a legitimate reason to eat with my hands. 

In school days, my secondary school friends and I would find every excuse to go to the town library.  It was then located in a building next to Johor Baru’s main Post Office. 

Our walk along Jalan Ibrahim to the library would take us pass Kerala Restaurant and Ee Hn’g Café, and we usually made a choice to go to either shop for a snack or drink. 

I tasted my first tosai with a side of coconut chutney and sambar on a banana leaf at Kerala Restaurant.  I used to watch in fascination, at how the cook would ladle a thin layer of batter onto a hot greased griddle and spread it out evenly with the base of the ladle.  The ladle was moved in a circular motion to form a pancake and then it was flipped to lightly cook both sides before being folded in half and served.

This was also where I had my first lesson in Indian dining etiquette because my friends and I discovered that there is a proper way to end a meal served on a banana leaf.  After finishing a meal the leaf should be folded inwards towards my heart to show respect or as a sign to the host that it was a good meal.  We used to joke about folding it outwards or fold it sideways to the left or right, just to be different.

A crispy scroll of paper tosai
Besides the plain tosai, rava and masala versions, restaurants have now come up with a creative menu of tosai that includes a wafer-thin, crispy paper tosai which I’ve learnt to enjoy.  Some cooks skillfully make such thin, crispy and large pancakes which when they are rolled up, has lengths that are triple the diameter of the serving plate.  These spectacular scrolls are not only attention-grabbing but are also fun to crunch my way through.

While I prefer savoury flavours, I also appreciate a sweet alternative in the fluffy apom.  Call it apong, apam or apom, this is a bowl-shaped pancake cooked in a little wok and eaten with sweetened coconut milk.  It has the best of both worlds, soft and spongy in the middle and thin and crispy on the outer edges. 

Sweet apom sold at a market stall
But my all-time favourite snack must be vadai fritters – both the doughnut and disc-shaped variety.  I can remember Aunty Polly buying a bagful home after work and showing me how to enjoy the disc-shaped vadai made from lentils or dhal.  As a kid I was not brave enough to take the chillie but I can never forget how my aunty used to eat with relish, alternately chewing the freshly fried vadai with a bite of fresh green chillie.

A popular vadai stall along Jalan Wong Ah Fook made this snack more attractive by creating them in little bite-size balls that can be easily popped into the mouth.  Vadai stalls at most morning and night markets often make the vadai thinner probably for a more, crispy and crunchy effect but freshly fried vadai always tastes great.  Now every time I visit the markets, I will not fail to indulge in my favourite yummy Indian snacks and I always want green chillies to go with them.

When I was in India, I enjoyed ulundu vadai or the doughnut version of vadai for breakfast every day and it was so good that I could eat it without any gravies.  For almost two weeks I zeroed in on this vadai from the breakfast buffet and had my fill of the best I’ve ever tasted.  But the whole pepper corns they used in this delicious vadai started to give me a sore throat so I had no choice but to refrain from further indulging in this beautiful breakfast food.

Well-meaning friends always remind me not to drink regular water or eat street food in India and will not hesitate to regale me with all sorts of horror stories about the reactions to consuming such food or water.  But while I was in South India, on a journey to Chinnakuppam fishing village and the coach stopped at a little village for refreshments, I could not resist tasting the paruppu vadai or lentil fritters from a roadside hawker. 

It was everything I expected from freshly fried lentil vadai and my thrill for indulging in it was double because it was served wrapped in humble newsprint, a sheet probably from yesterday’s newspaper.  This was also where I discovered that the vadai sold by our local vendors often used crushed lentils instead of whole lentils or dhal like this hawker who made authentic vadai in an Indian village.  Maybe it’s my perut besi [strong stomach] because no, I did not have any adverse effects from eating street food in India.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 4 May 2011