Fine dining and street food clash in KL

Fine dining and street food clash in KL
Chef Chan Hon Meng of Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodles in Singapore paired with chef Jeff Ramsey of progressive modernist restaurant Babe in Damansara in Tiger Streats, branded as the world's first 'street food meets fine dining' culinary collaboration where two chefs who live worlds apart come together to stir up appetites.
PHOTO: Tiger Streats

At a secret warehouse with no name, some odd things are going on. Tables are dressed in crisp white tablecloths and white linen napkins like those you would find at a fancy pants fine dining restaurant. But diners are sitting on plastic chairs and eating off plastic plates with disposable cutlery - the kind you have seen often enough at hawker stalls.

The worlds of fine dining and street food clash at Tiger Streats, branded as the world's first "street food meets fine dining" culinary collaboration where two chefs who live worlds apart come together to stir up appetites.

The Tiger Streats event found the perfect venue in a former warehouse converted into a production studio complete with Chinatown-style streetscape.Photo: Tiger Streats

The global pop-up restaurant concept by Tiger was first launched in Sydney, followed by Auckland, New York City and now Kuala Lumpur. The idea is to bring people from different social classes, generations and cultures together to share an ice-cold beer in a polarising world.

To do this, Tiger has found no better ambassador than Chan Hon Meng of Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodles in Singapore, the world's first hawker stall to win a Michelin star. It is also the world's cheapest one Michelin-star meal, mind you.

Tai Hwa Pork Noodle and Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle awarded one Michelin star

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    Culinary bible Michelin on Thursday awarded one star each to two street food hawkers in Singapore, the first in the guide's history.

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    "For the first time, you would be able to have a Michelin-starred meal for under S$5," said Michael Ellis, international director of the Michelin guides.

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    Launching the inaugural restaurant and hotel guide to the Southeast Asian city-state, Michelin inspectors gave one star each to Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle and Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle.

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    "Singapore was the natural choice for expansion because of the breadth and depth of the culinary scene, where you not only have a wide variety, but also very good cooking. And there is a strong culture of eating out, whether at a hawker stall or in a fine dining restaurant," he told AFP.

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    In a country where people take their food seriously - Singaporeans consider eating a national past time - 36 different cuisines were featured in the guide, ranging from Chinese to Australian.

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    When the Bib Gourmand list went public last week and his stall was not on it, Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle's owner Tang Chay Seng was most disappointed.

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    "The Michelin officials came to my stall to look for me last week, and told me I was getting an award. But when the papers came out I called them to tell them my name wasn't in it," said the 69-year-old, who runs the popular Teochew-style pork-and-vinegar noodle stall at Crawford Lane.

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    It was founded by his father Tang Joon Teo in 1932, and moved to its current location in 2004.

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    He continued over a phone interview in Mandarin: "They just told me it's okay, sure will have one. So I'm not sure lah."

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    Despite believing that he was passed over for an award, Mr Tang still attended the gala dinner on Thursday night, if anything to just "see people receive their award and clap for them".

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    After discovering that he did indeed receive a star however, he remained practical and said: "I feel pretty normal about it. It's not that I'm not happy - getting a star means affirmation for my food. But there's a bit of pressure now to deliver. Because everyone's taste buds are subjective and I don't want to disappoint customers."

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    Both hawkers told told Channel NewsAsia that they will not be raising prices, but expect that the up to 45-minute-long queues will stretch even longer.

In each city, Hawker Chan, as he is fondly known, teams up with an award-winning local chef to create the ultimate culinary mash-up, to be enjoyed washed down with copious amounts of cold Asian beer.

In Sydney, Chan was paired with Guillaume Galliot, chef of two Michelin-starred The Tasting Room in Macau. They came up with a unique popcorn and pumpkin creation in a dramatic clash of hot and cold, combining each of their styles.

In KL, Chan is paired with chef Jeff Ramsey of progressive modernist restaurant Babe in Damansara, known for its Japas, aka Japanese tapas. Japanese-American Ramsey was the executive chef of Tapas Molecular Bar at the six-star Mandarin Oriental Tokyo when it earned a Michelin star.

Chan and Ramsey couldn't be further apart despite playing on a level field - both have one Michelin star status. Not sharing a common language they communicated via interpreters.

On the night, Ramsey is responsible for the two starters, Chan the main course, and they collaborated on the dessert.

"I didn't think it was possible," says Ramsey. "It's not easy, like two painters coming together to make one work of art. At first I was not happy, then I relaxed and opened up my mind a bit. I still didn't know how it was going to happen, then Chan volunteered a few key words like 'red bean soup' and 'osmanthus jelly'.

"I thought, 'why not?'. I could do an orange perfume or curry leaf ice-cream. Being an American I know what jello is and when he said jelly we connected - we were Skyping about a month before this event. Five minutes later, I knew what to do as jelly is typical of his style of cuisine and I now have a reference point."

"I know Western chefs like to use fruits and flowers in desserts so I know what can go with these," says Chan. "I trust Ramsey; I know he will come up with something that represents both of our styles and methods of cooking."

"We have the same understanding, and it went quite quickly after that. Plus, as chefs, we both want to make people happy through food," says Ramsey.

The first appetiser is Ramsey's Down The Rabbit Hole, a colourful liquid in a test tube - except that we are not aware it is the first appetiser as it is already set on the table among pens and other trinkets when we are seated. So it goes undiscovered - you can say it slips down the rabbit hole and disappears.

Then the Laksa Injections are delivered, promising Malaysia's most famous laksas: asam, curry and Sarawak. Each comes with a plastic dropper filled with laksa broth; you pop the little skewer of prawn and herbs and squeeze the broth into the mouth at the same time to get a laksa pop.

Laksa Injections by Ramsey is a trio of (from left): asam, curry and Sarawak laksa pops.Photo: Tiger Streats

Ramsey calls it "street food in fancy dress, smeared with lipstick". I say, "it's good fun, but give me something to eat" - they are more amuse bouche than appetiser.

I get my wish when a sharing plate of Chan's soy sauce chicken arrives. We are thrilled to have the famous dish served to us without having to join the notorious two-hour queue for it at its home in Singapore's Chinatown food court.

Earlier, at the action station, as Chan was busy chopping away, we were tantalised by the puff of soy sauce fragrance around the chef - other notes were of star anise, Chinese five-spice and caramel.

The appeal of Liao Fan chicken is apparent: the bird is evenly coated in a glossy, chocolatey glaze. The meat yields easily to the bite to reveal perfectly-cooked, cottony white flesh. The chicken skin is thin and has no fat on the underside, so we are looking at lean protein.

People from different social classes, generations and cultures come together over Hawker Chan's now world-famous Hong Kong soya sauce chicken rice.Photo: Tiger Streats

The meat itself, like most battery-farmed chickens, has not much taste; you may as well be eating firm tofu. It is this blandness that provides the perfect canvas to show off the sauce, a very aromatic concoction with an intense salty-sweet balance.

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The beauty of soy sauce chicken is that despite being a braised dish, it looks and tastes like roasted meat with its highly umami, caramelised and smoky flavours. The rice that comes with it is just clumpy boiled white rice but we are grateful to have something to soak up the dark, tasty sauce poured on the chicken.

No amount of prising can induce Chan to reveal the secret recipe but he says that he uses a mix of light and dark soy sauces and insists that the brands do not matter, only the final taste; when he was cooking in America, he used what was available.

Michelin-starred soya sauce chicken at Hawker Chan

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    Chef Chan at the opening of the first Hawker Chan outlet in Singapore

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    One of them is Mr Chan Hon Meng's Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle, which earned an one-star rating from the culinary bible in July this year.

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    The hawker stall is also touted as the cheapest Michelin-starred food establishment in the world, with its award-winning soya sauce chicken noodles selling at only $2.50.

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    His new quick service restaurant Hawker Chan opens at Smith Street - just a three-minute walk away from his hawker stall at Chinatown Food Complex on Nov 18.

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    The air-conditioned eatery comfortably seats 80 diners and features an interactive kiosk where they can customise their orders.

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    Hawker Chan serves four types of roasts - soya sauce chicken, char siew, roasted pork and pork ribs - that can be paired with rice, noodles or hor fun.

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    The signature soya sauce chicken is tender and juicy, and the skin is fragrant, yet not too greasy.

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    You'll find soybeans served together with the dish which is quite uncommon, we thought. x

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    You'll find soybeans served together with the dish which is quite uncommon, we thought. We found out later that these beans were the secret to its amazing flavour - as they were used to marinate the chicken.

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    We also love the savoury roasted pork that has just the right amount of belly fat and very crispy skin. This dish will definitely go well with some ice-cold beer.

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    While the dishes at Hawker Chan are pricier than similar offerings at the hawker stall, we think that they are still rather pocket-friendly with main dishes ranging from $3.80 for soya sauce chicken rice to $23 for a whole soya sauce chicken.

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The collaborative dessert has a beautiful name, Two Makes a Blossom, a compilation of osmanthus jelly, rosewater and honey mousse, pickled roselle, and chrysanthemum petals with a taste that reminds me of a forgotten dessert we used to get from street vendors known as ogiou jelly.

The Two Makes A Blossom dessert collaboration by Chan and Ramsey.Photo: Tiger Streats

After the featured chefs' courses are served at the table, there is more food at the various action stations set up around the venue. The curated selection features modern Malaysian street food - or street food with a twist.

Hoppers KL's nasi lemak appam and chicken varuval appam beckon. The loh mai kai (sticky rice and chicken) with a twist from Tujo gastropub and cincalok popcorn chicken from Chocha Foodstore look promising; so too the roti aiskrim and fried cempedak aiskrim from Inside Scoop.

The nasi lemak appan by Hoppers KL.Photo: The Star/ANN

But the queues are long and snaking - hey, it's really like waiting in line for some famous street food! The inadequate cooling system also helps to replicate the street scenario. So we decide not to jostle with the 600-strong crowd of revellers and call it an early night.

A truly Malaysia rojak-style yee sang to stir up a rousing appetite for street food and cold beer.Photo: Tiger Streats

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