SUBANG JAYA, Jan 12 — Sometimes losses are simply opportunities in disguise.
I used to meet my friends for a weekend repast at my favourite neighbourhood daichow in Section 17, PJ. Typically, we would arrive in the early evening before any other customers appeared because the restaurant was popular and tables could get scarce.
Then during one visit, Auntie — as we had come to greet the friendly owner of the daichow — told us she would be retiring soon. Her knee was iffy from years of working on her feet and doctor’s orders.
Sure, we were sad but also glad she would be getting her well deserved rest. Another vendor took over the space but the food was never quite the same. Or perhaps we simply missed Auntie and her cheerful chatter.
My friends decided we needed to try a new restaurant. To find a new regular spot for our daichow cravings — for humble classics such as ròu suì zhēng shuǐ dàn (steamed egg with minced meat) and gūlū ròu (sweet and sour pork).
Restoran Kar Hiong in SS18, Subang Jaya.
Which is how we find ourselves at Restoran Kar Hiong in SS18, Subang Jaya. This is their part of town so my friends know it well. The number of tables already occupied before six speaks of its popularity. But what is on the menu?
For while some dishes are evergreen and nearly every daichow has them; others are specific to an establishment, perhaps even their signature.
I miss how we would order our favourites — steamed kampung chicken with wolfberries, garlic butter snails, lala (soft clams) in superior stock and the requisite plate of green vegetables.
Some evenings Auntie would recommend the choy tam or Brussels sprouts leaves stir-fried in garlic; other nights it might be paku-pakis, the wild ferns harvested by one of her trustworthy suppliers whenever he could find them.
It is the latter that I detect in Restoran Kar Hiong’s menu, itself almost a compendium of varied dishes, making up for the queue time (if one arrives late) with the sheer quantity of what is on offer.
Belacan pucuk paku. How could we resist ordering?
Barley water with pumpkin (left) and a bowl of ABC soup (right).
To go with these greens (always get the vegetables out of the way early else one might be tempted by greasier, meatier dishes and neglect this when ordering), we also opt for the ABC soup, cài xiāng zìzhì dòufu (Choi Hiong Homemade Tofu), dōng pō ròu (Braised Dong Bo Pork Belly) and bàng bàng jī (Boxing Chicken).
Given that there are only three of us, this already seems like quite a lot. But the server stands by our table patiently, as though expecting us to order more. She might have overestimated our appetites or the size of our bellies.
Once we swear we are fine with the five dishes, as well as glasses of barley water with pumpkin, the server promptly whisks the menus away and rushes off.
Service is brisk here for there are indeed many customers already seated at tables and even more waiting outside for those same tables.
The rapid-fire performance of putting in our orders just makes me miss the more leisurely pace at my old daichow. There, it was a regular challenge — not unlike one of the Twelve Labours of Heracles — to persuade Auntie to let us order more dishes.
Crispy ‘bàng bàng jī’ (Boxing Chicken).
Indeed, the formidable daichow Auntie was well-known for her dislike of patrons wasting food. She could often be heard advising them against ordering more than they can finish.
Pleading with her to allow us to order one extra dish felt like a task more insurmountable than overpowering the Nemean lion or capturing Cerberus, the three-headed canine guarding the gates of the underworld. Greek heroes had it easy.
Maybe we just long for what we cannot have. Maybe we prefer the thrill of coaxing tears from stone — or an extra dish from a daichow matriarch, for that matter.
Back to the present: The first dish to arrive is the ABC soup. It is homey fare, perfect to warm the bellies ahead of the more substantial courses to follow. Soft cubes of potatoes and carrots, translucent slivers of onion, fork tender spare ribs — mundane treasures in a sweet, clear broth.
Then, in rapid succession, the rest of our dishes arrive. The dōng pō ròu is a generous slab of braised pork belly, the glistening fat almost gelatinous and the savoury gravy begging to be mopped up with some soft and fluffy mantou buns
Homemade tofu (left) and ‘belacan pucuk paku’ (right).
The cài xiāng zìzhì dòufu is simple homemade tofu, flash-fried and topped with minced pork. You would want an extra bowl of rice to go with this.
The bàng bàng jī is also called popcorn chicken at some restaurants; the crispy battered meat awaits rapacious gnawing till only the bone is left.
Let us not forget the greens. Our plate of belacan pucuk paku looks fresh and crunchy, though the belacan could have been more aromatic. No matter; it is a decent enough rendition and we enjoy our meal.
Still, I cannot help but miss the oftentimes tattered red tablecloths, the loud hollering of the daichow boss in several dialects, the fresh evening breeze that would sometimes waft in, the view of the open kitchen where the cooks sweated over their heavy woks.
Our dinner at Restoran Kar Hiong was lovely, in great part due to the quality of the company, but the hunt for my new favourite daichow continues.
Tables of customers enjoying their dinner at Restoran Kar Hiong.
I remind myself of the old adage about how it is about the journey rather than the destination so here is to more amazing food discoveries!
Restoran Kar Hiong 家香饭店
29, Jalan SS18/1b, SS18, Subang Jaya
Open daily (except Mon closed) 10:30am-9:30pm
Tel: 016-328 7022