Thursday, March 5, 2015

Yearning for yong tow foo

I’m a true-blue Hakka, 100% Taipu on both my father’s and mother’s sides, so I do consider myself somewhat of an authority on Hakka yong tow foo. Literally translated, it’s beancurd stuffed with a bit of ground pork and fish paste. I’m sure its beginnings were humble, as Hakka cuisine is typically hearty peasant fare, featuring lots of belly pork and preserved vegetables. But for those in the know (ahem, me) there’s a world of difference between what passes for excellent yong tow foo and the mediocre stuff sold in food courts.

I did have a version of this food court version, recommended to me as the best in Singapore. We got there fairly early so there was none of the usual queue. (I notice that there are queues for practically every eatery in Singapore.) We made our individual selection of different beancurd products and vegetables such as okra, eggplant and bittergourd, passed the bowl to a wait staff and said what noodles we wanted with them. The fish paste was pasty white, and none of the pieces was deep fried. The accompanying soup was insipid and the chili sauce a disappointment as well.

I have determined that there is no yong tow foo worth eating outside of the Klang Valley. You would think that Penang, being the food capital that it is, would have a few good outlets. But while Penang is famed for favourites like char kway teow, prawn noodles and assam laksa, other types of street food like wonton noodles, pan mee and bak kut teh aren’t up to par on the island.

For years, my colleagues and I have been frequenting Ipoh Road Yong Tow Foo, fondly referred to as Segambut yong tow foo. It has recently relocated to Cairnhill Hotel, and for the better, I think. The premises are clean and airy, with ample parking. On each table is a notepad for you to write down your order. This can be nightmarish in a large group, but I’ve trained my dining companions to hold up their fingers for each order to eliminate dithering and squabbling!

A yummy sauce only adds to the flavorful dish
The filling used here is only fish paste with no pork. The deep fried pieces including the beancurd roll and eggplant are really crunchy and flavourful, and everything comes in a thick sauce that’s probably full of MSG but tasty nevertheless. 

For years as well, I have gone to the yong tow foo stall in what I call Madras Lane. It’s actually a row of stalls next to the Petaling Street wet market. Oldtimers like me will recall that there used to be a cinema in the area called Madras Theatre. There’s an open parking area right beside the stalls, but scoring a table can be a challenge. You go up to the stall, make your selection from a range of beancurd varieties and vegetables, and it’s served to you in a soup. The filling used is a mixture of fish paste and minced pork, especially tasty when deep fried. It’s not the most conducive place to have your lunch in, and I don’t recommend it if you’re in office attire or bringing visitors.

I’m sure it’s been awhile since the place has had a health inspection. What I do like is the sense of nostalgia Madras Lane conjures up for me. Growing up, I came with my mother and sisters, and we would have the chee cheong fun as well as curry laksa, and round up our meal with either ice kacang or cendol, served in a glass, not bowl. These stalls are still around, and I especially like the laksa with lots of cockles, long beans and eggplant. First time diners might be a put off by what seems to be a long-standing territorial war among the stalls. There are a couple of laksa stalls which only serve certain tables, and they don’t encroach on each other’s territory. Likewise with the drinks stalls. Standards have dropped while prices have soared, to be sure, but I still like coming, for old times’ sake.

A vast array of beancurd products and veggies waiting to be stuffed!
A recent find was Puchong Yong Tau Fu. I had heard about it, but Puchong, like Cheras, is like another country to me, so thank goodness for the internet and Waze. Here, you make your selection from a really wide variety of vegetables and beancurd varieties, which are then filled with a mixture of fish paste and minced pork on the spot and either deep fried or served in a soup with “sayur manis”. You can’t get any fresher than this. You can also have your choice of rice, noodles or chee cheong fun.

Located on Jalan Tembusu, Batu 14 in Taman Sri Puchong, the no-frills restaurant stays open till 9 pm which is great to keep in mind if ever I feel like having yong tow foo for dinner when it’s perhaps cooler. Like all the other yong tow foo restaurants I know, it’s closed on Mondays.

No matter where I’ve been for this Hakka dish, nothing comes close to what my mother used to make. This typically enterprising and self-taught cook made her own yong tow foo from scratch, filleting the mackerel and chopping the meat up into a fine paste (before the days of the food processor), then mixing in minced pork which was quite fatty to give it a divine silkiness. She also added a smoked and dried fish which I rarely see in the dried seafood shops anymore. She then filled a variety of really good white tow foo and other vegetables, and came up with a few variants as well which would have been worthy of 5-star restaurants. She filled dried mushrooms with the paste, and also wrapped it around dried oysters, with a julienned bamboo shoot to give it a crunch. (She did this way before Masterchef hopefuls were taught to add this element.)

What made her yong tow foo so outstanding was the broth she served it in. Made from superior stock that included the deep fried bones of the mackerel she had earlier used, it added another dimension to this humble dish, and best of all, it had no msg in it.

Sadly, my mum is gone and we’re all too lazy to make this dish from scratch. Now I can only talk and dream about it, yearning for this home-made Hakka favourite.

Ipoh Road Yong Tow Foo
Cairnhill Hotel
6th Floor, Batu 31/2, Jalan Ipoh, 51200 Kuala Lumpur.
Connie Wong 012 3684340

No. 105, Kampung Baru, Jalan Tembusu, Batu 14, Puchong, 47100, Puchong, Selangor.
019-678 8188 (Mobile)

1 comment: