SeeFoon takes a trip with Dato’ David Tan Down Memory Lane

“Rare is the occasion to see a cookbook written by a retired industrialist whose majors were in accountancy and economics” wrote Huang Jiao Ling, Director General, Office of Overseas Chinese Affairs, Xiamen City Government, China, in the Foreword of the book A Trip Down Memory Lane: Signature Dishes from the Tan Family.

50 Recipes of Family Favourites

The look and feel of the book is retro, harking back to a time when people spent time in the kitchen cooking every meal with meticulous care and attention. The Chinese characters describe the essence of the book even more succinctly: ‘Lao Wei Dao’ or Old Tastes.

And the recipes in David Tan’s book reflect this: 50 recipes of dishes of his family favourites, some accompanied by anecdotes of the dish’s origins or memories of the dish from David’s childhood, watching his grandmother and mother cooking. His culinary skills were only developed when he was studying in the UK and yearning for the dishes from his childhood, he began experimenting. Over the years, he became passionate about cooking and today David is a fine chef, excelling in producing dishes, some from his Hokkien origins, whose recipes are mostly forgotten.

Many Credits

The book which is bilingual (English and Chinese), is dedicated to David’s grandfather the late Tan Lark Sye, a well-known Hokkien industrialist and philanthropist who founded Nanyang University in Singapore in 1952. David, who was born in Singapore, grew up in Ipoh. He credits his maternal grandmother Mdm Cha Siew Khim for exposing him to the delights of gastronomy and his mother Datin Chon Moi who spurred his passion and honed his culinary skills. The recently published cookbook he credits to his ‘Sifu’ the late Mdm Chong Su Yin who ran the cooking school Chopsticks and who had 21 cookbooks published. He refers to her as his ‘guardian angel’ and her teaching methods in the art of cooking ‘beyond description’. She once told him, “Use your heart to cook, feel the ingredients and foresee your final results.”

Legendary Specialties

And David has taken her admonition to heart. David’s specialties are legendary and those who have had the privilege to taste some of them, including myself, have left his house yearning to be invited again and again. I have personally had the pleasure of sampling his Katong Laksa, a hawker specialty that every Singaporean raves over and every Laksa stall there claims to be the ‘original’ one. I can safely vouch for David’s Katong Laksa as being even better than the original as I too, grew up in Singapore and this used to be one of my favourite treats. Today I no longer have to scour the streets looking for the ‘best’ one. I have found it in Ipoh and better yet, with David’s cookbook, I can even attempt to make it myself.

Not that I am a wizard in the kitchen, but with David’s detailed recipes, instructions and footnotes, even those who cannot boil an egg will manage to achieve a facsimile of the real thing.

Case of the Bouncing Fish Ball

Take for example the case of the Bouncing Fish Ball. As every foodie worth his or her salt knows, a really succulent bouncy fish ball that has no additives, but simply fish meat, salt and water is firstly, a rare find, and secondly a nightmare to make at home. However, David has written his bouncing fish balls recipe as a formula straight out of a science lab. (See recipe featured on this page.) And as with all tried and tested science formulae, if you follow David’s recipe to the letter, he guarantees you’ll have super bouncy fish balls. And I can vouch for it. I’ve tested it in my kitchen and the result was superb.

The book is 160 pages long with recipes sectioned off into categories. The first one is Tan Family’s Signature Recipes which starts off with the Homemade Chilli Paste, a delectable and easy to make paste which I immediately produced and have now stored in small portions in my freezer to use for an assortment of stir fries or to eat as accompaniment with noodles. Friends to whom I have given the paste are now clamouring for more. Other recipes in this category include Ah Ma’s Assam Fish CurryFamily Traditional Acar (super easy and super tasty and keeps for weeks in the fridge); Ah Ma’s Famous Kueh Talam (I tasted some made by David at his home and they are scrumptious).

The next category is Traditional Hokkien Flavours which include Hokkien Heh Zor or Deep-fried Prawn RollsTraditional Dried Oyster Porridge and Traditional Hokkien Yam and Radish Cakes. This is followed by a category David calls Unique Tastes of Nanyang which includes recipes for Singapore Original Curry Fish Head (yes the real McCoy!); Singapore Punggol Mee Siam (unbeatable) and Famous Petaling Street Hokkien Mee.

Finally, there is a category for Traditional Hokkien Flavours of Xiamen where the Tan family originate. Here you’ll find recipes for Hokkien Jimei Ngoh Hiang (Loh Bak)Oh Chian (Oyster Omelette) and the Original Hokkien Jimei Loh Mee.

All in all, these 160 pages of A Trip Down Memory Lane is chock full of the most detailed recipes for dishes that are rapidly being degraded in most eateries. David does not cut corners. Every recipe is made with the original ingredients and he does not stint on his instructions or as some chefs have been known to do…leave out the one or two ‘secret’ ingredient or trick that turns a dish from a mediocre into a superlative one. David wants you to succeed with his recipes and I am certainly one who can attest to that. Even my Filipino maid, who has no clue as to the taste of these dishes, has succeeded.

To your success Chef David and please may we have more cookbooks.

SeeFoon Dines like a King

No, I haven’t had a sex change but as the name Maharaj implies, this restaurant serves cuisine fit for a king. And the interior decor is equally befitting of royalty. Exuberant murals adorn the walls with scenes of the glorious days of the Raj and Moghul times; stunning chandeliers and other light fixtures brighten rooms; crenellated Corbel arches open up the space between tables; two private rooms, one seating twenty and the other twelve and an impressive grand function room accommodating 150 for sit down banquets, create an ambiance that can only be described as lavish. Ample parking space in this Gopeng Road location, a converted bungalow that is part of the Shooting Club, completes the appeal of this newly-opened venue for dinner, lunch or banquets.

Maharaj Restaurant Ipoh

A meal here at Maharaj can be likened to a gourmet feast around India as they’re proud to be presenting dishes from the different states such as Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, the West Coast and Northern India.

I was watching an interesting programme on TV when host Alton Brown was explaining that there is no such thing as curry powder (a term coined in the west for that mix of spices) in India. Each dish, of what we call ‘curry’, is an intricate combination of herbs and spices used either as a dry powder or in the form of a paste, each one a different blend and called the masala. It is this masala, with each state having its preferences, which gives each dish its unique flavours. Just as we have our different types of ‘rempah’ Indians have different ‘masala’.

The menu at Maharaj is staggering. Just the fact that they have 100 different kinds of kebabs available, although only eight of them are listed on their menu, suggests the range of possibilities at this restaurant. Those familiar with Indian cuisine are always welcome to discuss with the manager, Murugan, for any dishes they may hanker for. As it is, the range of dishes I tasted on two occasions left me groaning with surfeit and toying with the idea of fasting for a week! The saving grace though is that the restaurant does not use MSG (remember my war on MSG in IE 192?) and I did not have to go through the swelling and the thirst that invariably follow my reaction to this ubiquitous flavour enhancer.

Space on this page will limit me in describing all of the dishes I tasted. I will only list here the specials that were, in my opinion, superb and incent me to return to sample more. For appetizers we had two dishes that were as delicious as they were unusual in that I had never encountered them prepared this way before. The first was a Bendhi Jaipuri, sliced ladies fingers coated with batter and sesame seeds and deep fried and the second was the Palak Pakoda or deep fried spinach – RM6.

As in most Indian meals, we began with the Tandoori Chicken, this one succulent, juicy, lightly charred and utterly delectable; unlike others I’ve tried which can be dry and not flavourful. Proprietor Thangaraja tells his chef to not stint on ingredients and hence they only use fresh and not frozen meat. This also applies to their mutton which is freshly slaughtered and supplied twice a week. The mixed kebab dish that followed was almost a meal in itself comprising fish with mint and yoghurt, a mutton kebab, prawns and chicken. Served with their coriander, mint chutney, every mouthful is worth savouring. Total the number of kebabs ordered from the menu RM16-18 per type of kebab. An average taster platter for five people might be RM58.

Maharaj Restaurant Ipoh

For mutton, try the Mutton Chettinad, a specialty from Tamil Nadu, mildly spiced, with a thick sauce, the mutton tender and flavourful – RM18Malabar Fish Curry was tenggiri (local mackerel) centre cuts cooked in a coriander flavoured sauce with coconut milk; mild and rich – RM16. Another fish dish that is a ‘must-have’ is the Black Pomfret Masala, a dark, intense masala sauce enveloping a whole market-fresh pomfret with intense fiery undertones. Seasonal price. The one we had that day was RM28. As for other fish, I had the pleasure to sample two. One, the Tiger Prawn Masala, slit open, still in their shell, and grilled with a masala paste topping and served with lime wedges; sea-fresh and grilled to perfection; seasonal price. The other, Prawn Curry Leaves, medium-size prawns coated in a special masala and deep fried with curry leaves; crispy, mouth-wateringly good – RM18.

Maharaj Restaurant Ipoh

Chicken dishes abound on the Maharaj menu. The Komudi Kholapur is a dish from Maharashtra state which are chicken chunks with a thick gravy. The chicken was tender with a mild and smooth gravy – RM15.

Of course, no Indian meal can be eaten without the breads and rice. Six types of bread are available as well as a mini Naan basket – RM3-6 for the various types and RM18 for the mini mixed one. Of note are the specials, the Pulka which is like a chapati but much lighter and their paratha which as Murugan laughingly says as he served it, “…your Roti Canai”. And there the similarity ends. The Paratha here is extremely flaky, crisped on both sides and delicious – RM4.50.

Maharaj Restaurant Ipoh

As for the rice, the Dhum Bryani is the best I’ve ever tasted, and for the rest of my group as well.

The method of cooking is what gives this its signature taste and flavour, with the rice and all ingredients sealed inside a pot using a flour dough to seal the lid, and slow cooked over low heat till the rice is done. The result in the Maharaj is an ambrosia of flavours, each grain of basmati rice, well coated in the masala, pieces of tender mutton lending its umami signature to the whole dish – RM16.

All in all, Maharaj Restaurant is well worth patronising. My friend Saroja Tiagi summed it up very well when she said, “I could eat here every day and not exhaust the menu. Plus I don’t feel bloated and have heart burn afterwards.” A good testimony indeed.

Maharaj Restaurant Ipoh

Maharaj Restaurant (Pork Free)
Perak Shooting Association
36, Jalan Raja Dr Nazrin Shah (Gopeng Rd.), Ipoh.
GPS:  N 4° 35.285’  E 101° 5.84’
Tel: 05 243 2515
Business hours: open 24/7, 11am-3pm and 6pm-10.30pm.