What happens when hawker food is served in a fine dining establishment?
Last week, Enderun Colleges, a culinary arts school in Metro Manila, held its annual fundraiser dubbed as Laksa Night. The beneficiary for 2015 is the Tuloy Foundation, a non-government organization for marginalized children. I went with lawyer friends. For a voluntary donation, guests were treated to a delicious Southeast Asian dinner prepared by the students under the watchful eye of Chef See Cheong Yan, a graduate of Les Roches in Switzerland.
What was so interesting about the dinner was how hawker food was transformed into fine dining entrees. It started with the appetizer. Students carrying trays offered pai tee, a Peranakan kuih (bite-size snack), to guests sipping cocktails.
Half an hour later, guests were ushered into the dining room and the first course was served. Beef satay (above), grilled rare (perfect!), was served in a pool of peanut sauce (glorious!). Along with the skewered meat was a cap of shiitake mushroom with a crisp coating. On the side, a spicy cucumber salad. I’m not a side salad person. I look at those token shreds of vegetables as mere eye candy and I normally don’t bother with them. A good thing that I made an exception with that cucumber salad because it was so good I could have eaten more.
Next came the pièce de résistance, laksa — Nyonya-style — with coconut curry and seafood galore (left). Quite absent-mindedly, I made a comment about the laksa leaves that thrived and died in our garden. For laksa virgins and for those who never asked where laksa got its name, laksa is a herb that also goes by the name Vietnamese coriander.
Anyway, I was about to say, “Pass” (I am allergic to crustaceans) but a friend of a cousin of a friend who was at the table with us gave me an antihistamine tablet (thank you, Rina!) that didn’t lose its potency when taken with alcohol (Hallelujah!). See, by the time the laksa was served, I was already on my second glass of Margarita. I downed the tablet and enjoyed the laksa sans the whole shrimps and squid slices which I was happy to pass on to my friends.
Then, came the dish that I had eagerly been waiting for.
Hainanese chicken is one of the deceptively simple dishes that, in reality, takes a lot of skill and practice to prepare. We were served with perfectly cooked Hainanese chicken which was listed in the menu as chicken rice. We wondered where the broth was, none was served, and that was probably why it was “chicken rice” in the menu rather then the more strictly-defined Hainanese chicken. It was delicious. I’ve eaten Hainanese chicken so many times in so many restaurants in different countries, and Chef See’s version is one of the best I have ever had. I did not miss the broth at all.
By the time the plates of chicken rice were cleared, I have had two (maybe three?) Margaritas and a mojito (because they ran out of Margaritas). We were full, the conversation had been hysterically funny all throughout and my head was buzzing with the combination of good food, alcohol and the company of wonderful friends. It’s that feeling of happy contentment that one gets at the end of an evening that had gone extremely well.
I thought we were about to call it a night when… I had quite forgotten that dessert was yet to be served. And when the dessert plate was placed in front of me, I stared at it for a moment and wondered if my stomach could handle more food. I didn’t think I could.
But… BUT the sesame ice cream intrigued me and I just had to try it with or without the pandan and red bean genoise that came with it. My friends said the genoise was too dry but I said that every morsel of genoise that went into the mouth should be accompanied by a portion of the sesame ice cream. I liked the dessert. I finished all of it despite my initial resolve to simply sample the sesame ice cream.
So, what happens when hawker food is served fine dining style? At the hands of a good chef, one doesn’t get the feeling that the food is all fluff and plating. At the Laksa Night dinner, hawker food was still comfort food, familiar and uncomplicated, but without the street noise and the dubious sanitation.