Like in most cultures, we Chinese are very proud of our culinary heritage and consider ourselves to be connoisseurs when it comes to our own cuisines. It is our God-given talent to be able to strut into any Chinese restaurants on this planet and still be able to order an authentic and decent Chinese meal. It is not that uncommon to come across our inner “food critic” swagger when we are with our foreign guests (and fellow cinapeks), showing off our decerning taste for quality food. The very idea of having someone else, espcially a foreigner, telling us what to have is usually the cause of one’s embarrasment. We’re masters of our food. Well, least we like to think so.
So, you can imagine my initial enthusiasm when I arrived at Li Yen to find that the evening’s menu has been personally picked by a Gwai Lo.
“Egads!”, was my first reaction.
Gwai Lo (??) literally means “ghost man” (the word “ghost” refers to the paler complexions of stereotypical Caucasians) in Cantonese. The term is sometimes translated into English as foreign devil. We have been trained from young to never eat where the white guys eat. And never to order anything the white guys order. However, when I stop and think more into it, how would they have known if nobody has ever ordered a white man’s meal before?
Since the Gwai Lo in question was Oliver Ellerton, the PR Executive for the Ritz-Carlton, I decided to put my self-absorbing snobby chinky supreme gourmand diva guard down and let the good looking chap show us some of his favourite dishes made by the hotel’s award-winning Cantonese kitchen. I have after all had the priviledge of dining at the restaurant before and I am especially fond of their weekend dim sum offerings.
“Watercress soup? Honestly, is this the best he can do?” I thought, in an unimpressed manner.
I took a spoonful and tried to sip the clear broth as quietly as I can. We are after all having dinner in a posh setting. Before I could strike off the soup with a snarky “silly white guy” remark, my taste buds were already bursting with joy. There is a certain ingredient in this soup that reminds me of home, which I quickly pin down to the used of dried octopus that my mum usually puts in her soup as well. Its saltiness is complimented with the subtle sweetness and bitter aftertaste of the watercress which has been double boiled with pork belly, ribs and wolfenberries. How can I fault with my mum’s recipe?
A waitress then pulls in a cart into our dining room. Despite everyone delightfully screamed, “Peking Duck!” in unison, I wasn’t impressed.
“He has got to be kidding. What does he take us for? Gwai Lo’s?”. I continue to ask, “Where are the abalones, sea cucumber, oysters or even a fish for that matter?”
Certainly it is going to take more than just the theatrics of this skillful waitress
circumcising stripping the crispy skin off the huge glistening duck, rolling them into the fluffy steamed sesame pancakes with scallions, pickled vegetables and hoi sin sauce to bowl me over.
“Mmmm this is actually really good!”
I find myself taking two extra duck rolls off the central plate just to confirm this thought. I continue to indulge in silence without any objections. The rest of the skinless duck was sent back to the kitchen and came back later in the form of a heavenly plate of fried rice with diced duck meat. Most of us gulped up at least two bowls full without much dietary hesitations.
Baked Spare Ribs with Chinese Tea Leaves, looks nothing more than just a regular BBQ pork meat (char siu) but is unanimously voted the best dish of the evening. If it wasn’t for this evening, I would not have gotten to know about this smokey sweet ribs dish. Admitably, I don’t think I would have ordered it if I ever see it in the menu. Who can blame me if this simple sounding dish is overshadowed by intricate sounding Buddha-Jumps-Over-the-Wall-Cow-Jumps-Over-the-Moon dishes.
The beautiful scent from the dish traveled far outside our private room and beyond. I’m sure many other diners that evening would have placed an order for it too after taking in breath of its glorious perfume. At only RM14 per rib, I am tempted to just visit the restaurant again for a meal entirely made of these ribs and a bowl of white rice. What an affordable meal it’ll make.
“Ok, its a safe dish. The Gwai Lo just got lucky. It’s like ordering sweet & sour pork. One can’t go wrong with that.”
But then, I found myself liking how the chef reinterpreted the popular pak cheok har (???) by using champagne instead of the regular rice wine. The result was Baked Prawns with Champagne, with springy ocean prawns swimming in a fragrant champagne aroma. The Baked Cod Fish with Honey Glaze is a close relative of the ribs earlier, both with identical look and taste. Despite the firm and flaky cod flesh, I still prefered the ribs. Perhaps it lacks of lard. Li Yen’s signature Beancurd with Honshimeju Mushroom and blended with spinach was also excellent. Lovely texture I reckoned. And I thought Gwai Los are never fond of tofu.
“Damn, I am actually liking this meal. How can this be?”
The evening ended with another one of the restaurant’s signatures, a rich and chilled Avocado Cream. The green dessert has a gorgeous consistency of soft melting ice cream with a hint of a sweetness from the fruit (or is it a vegetable?) and vanilla. It has gotten Ciki and I enchanted as we finished our bowls to the very last drop.
In the end, I’ll admit that dinner was indeed a good one. There is no doubt about that. I also have to concede that perhaps we may not know everything there is to know about Chinese cuisine. Sometimes, all it takes is a friendly outsider to show us the true testament to a good Chinese meal is not how technically complicated the dish is or how tongue-twisting its name is, but it is in the chef’s ability to turn simple ingredients into extraordinary dishes.
Thanks to Ollie and Andrea for the kind invitation and educational meal; and Lyla for organizing the dinner.
Li Yen Chinese Restaurant
The Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur
168, Jalan Imbi, Kuala Lumpur, 55100 Malaysia.
Tel: +603-2142 8000