My gong-gong (maternal grandfather), left his home in Southern China and arrived in Malaysia at the beginning of World War II because of poverty and a lack of job opportunities. He believed that life in another country would be much better than staying put in China. His hope to provide his large family with a more comfortable life was, however, met with great disappointment. Like himself, many other workers who fled the motherland had to endure plenty of inhumane working conditions, physical abuse by employers and laborious working hours.
But over the years, with hard work and determination, he landed a job with the prestigious Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank and worked his way up. By then, my mum who is the youngest in her family was already in her late teens, his family was now living a very comfortable lifestyle. Gong-gong, I was told, believed that the best way to spend his hard earned money was on food and his favourite restaurant was Sek Yuen in Pudu. He would spend many of his days and eventually becoming friends with all the workers and customers. He would treat his family to many feasts and attended countless weddings and birthday banquets at this now iconic restaurant. Oh, what a fabulous time it must have been for this over sixty years old restaurant.
These days, its grandeur is no where close to its former glory as Kuala Lumpur’s most celebrated Cantonese kitchen. However, walk beyond its depilating retro facade and be enthralled by their long-forgotten recipes which have stood defiantly against the city’s modern landscape. Even the antiqued stoves in its cavernous kitchen are still fired up by chopped wood. Nowadays, they don’t make restaurants like they used to anymore.
Mum tells me that every Chinese New Year, she and her siblings would help grandfather slice up fresh ingredients for their reunion Yee Sang – using a recipe he has learned from the his friend, the master chef, served with of thin translucent slices of raw wan yue seasoned with a combination of sesame and cooking oil, pepper, Chinese 5-spiced powder, fresh ginger slices and lime juice. The lady preparing the Yee Sang today carefully mixes the fish with the seasoning using the back of the chopsticks so she wouldn’t puncture the mackerel slices.
Customer favourites like the Kah Heong Chai Choi (loosely translated as Family Home Mixed Vegetables) and Kwai Fah Tan, a crab meat omelette which resembles a giant osmanthus flowers, requires a lot of kung fu (skills) from the restaurant’s brigade of elderly kitchen staff uniformed in white Pagoda tees over white shorts.
If you would like to savour on either one of the restaurant’s signature crispy Pi Pa Duck with a dreamy plum sauce or the fork-tender, Pat Poh Ngap (braised duck stuffed with 8-treasures like mushrooms and various types of nuts), do remember to call and order ahead.
Simple pleasure comes from every day dishes like Stir-fried Kangkung (Water Convolvulus) with Beef and Sweet and Sour Pork. So flavourful we ordered two portions each and lick the dishes clean. Rice here is slow-cooked over wood fire and the result is a fragrant aluminium bowl of fluffy white rice.
On occasions like the Lunar New Year or a birthday banquet, they conjure up the special Lap Mei Fan (assorted waxed meat rice), an aromatic dish using the same fluffy white rice tossed together with onion caramalised in pork lard that drives everyone insane and craving for more.
I never really got to know my grandfather, he passed away before I turned two. So I am grateful that Sek Yuen’s cooking hasn’t changed much and has provided a way to connect with gong-gong through his favourite dishes here. I’d like to think that I’ve inherited his love and passion for food. And I’ve definitely no qualms sharing his favoured restaurant with my friends and visitors alike.
Today, the restaurant is runned by the third generation with not a younger face in sight. Who knows what the future holds for them. For our sake, I really wish for the sun to never set on Sek Yuen. But from the look of things, nightfall is inevitable and one day this charming place will vanish into the dark and its dishes will remain a nostalgic memory. Here’s hoping it wouldn’t be soon.
Sek Yuen Restaurant
313-1, Jalan Pudu
55100 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 03-92229457 / 03-92220903