KUALA LUMPUR, July 27 — Some things in life we take for granted. Consider our neighbourhood daichows, for example. There’s one in nearly every decent-sized taman and some inner city blocks.
We have come to expect a variety of affordable and delicious Chinese-style dishes from these uniquely Malaysian restaurants, often served soon after ordering. Add a laidback environment where you can arrive dressed in your shorts and slippers – what’s not to like?
Different daichows (literally “big fry” in Cantonese) have their own specialties and their own devoted following of regulars. Not all customers are residents nearby; after all, Malaysians aren’t averse to travelling great distances to sup at their favourite makan spots.
I’m no exception to this rule: here are three of my favourite daichows, where a good meal is never too far away.
Wooi Mei Seafood Restaurant, Section 17 PJ
I’m an out-of-towner. When I first arrived in PJ from Malacca, I was fortunate to find an inexpensive room to rent. My friendly landlord was a huge foodie and introduced me to his favourite daichow, a couple of neighbourhoods away.
We would arrive early in the evening before the tables got filled up with hungry families. As with most daichows, Wooi Mei Seafood Restaurant operates as a coffee shop in the morning. Hence there are char kway teow and curry laksa stalls crammed against the pillars to make space for the round tables with their signature red tablecloths.
Located near the small market square of Section 17 PJ where plenty of other daichows abound, Wooi Mei is the indisputable king of the square. Perhaps “queen” of the square may be more appropriate for we always look forward to having our orders taken by the lady boss whose recommendations never fail to delight.
(Be forewarned: don’t waste a single morsel or she may not allow you to order so many dishes the next time you visit!)
One of Wooi Mei’s specialties is their kampong chicken. Whether it’s baked with Chinese herbs so the aromatic juices are sealed inside the aluminium foil wrap, or steamed and served with a simple garlic-chilli sauce, it’s always good.
Wooi Mei also offers home-made Japanese-style tofu, custardy-smooth with no added preservatives. Regulars usually ask for this cooked on a hotplate with minced pork and egg; I always ask for an extra bowl of rice to soak up every drop of their addictive onion-and-bean paste gravy.
Another firm favourite is their version of escargot. Using local edible snails, Wooi Mei prepares this dish in two different styles – fragrant garlic-butter or spicy kamheong. These snails are a tad chewy compared to their French cousins, but once you’ve had one, you undoubtedly will, as the slogan goes, ask for more.
Restoran OK Seafood, TTDI
A few years down the road, I moved into a studio apartment in Damansara Perdana. A place of my own though a bachelor pad could be lonely too. A blessing, then, that I had a close-knit group of friends.We were all singletons back then, and every one of us from another state. Friends are the family you make when you are on your own. And there’s adaichow for the likes of us who don’t cook at home.
In addition to the usual gaggle of families, Restoran OK in TTDI often attracts a crowd of young professionals. Here we can have the next best thing to a home-cooked meal without being afraid of standing out; after all, there is a row of trendy cafés serving artisanal coffee nearby and pubs offering imported beer.
(This neighbourhood notion of trendiness may well have rubbed off on Restoran OK; their tablecloths are a solid yellow instead of the standard red.)
Start with signature dishes such as their “Three Yolks King” (steamed custard of normal, salted and century eggs), and the always-reliable “Four Heavenly Kings” (a sambal-laced stir-fry of four types of vegetables – such as okra, long beans, four-angle beans and brinjals).
Another winner at Restoran OK is their Ginseng Chicken. It may take a while to arrive but lightly herbal-flavoured broth is well worth it. The chicken meat is tender yet remains moist: you can have this alone with rice. (Don’t forget to dip it in the default daichow dressing of soy sauce and tiny, sliced cili padi. Add some raw garlic for more kick.)
If you still have room, order their Guinness spareribs as a finisher to the meal in lieu of desserts. This dish of darkly-sweet spareribs, caramelised to perfection may make you decide another bowl of rice could be a good idea, if only not to waste that molasses-thick gravy.
Restoran Lucky Loke, SS3 PJ
Restoran Lucky Loke in SS3 PJ is not a new player to the local daichow scene, but it’s the newest to me. This has always felt like an adult’s daichow to me, if only for the random reason I always come here with my partner, in the company of other couples.
That’s not to say that this daichow is designed for double-dating though; their most popular dish would hardly leave you wanting a kiss from your sweetheart. Not unless you like smooches tinged with the perfume of fresh, raw … garlic.
Lucky Loke’s famous garlic fish may be the reason folks from afar are willing to jostle for parking in the narrow lanes behind this row of shophouses (and risk scratching their cars in the process). The “lucky” in the restaurant’s name could well be the residents who live close by and need only stroll to their supper.
Choose your fish from whatever’s fresh that day (some would argue a saltwater fish would fare better than freshwater due to the “muddy” taste of the latter, but note that the former is usually more expensive).
Minutes later, your selection will arrive deep-fried to a golden crisp, gently doused in an umami-flavoured sauce (we suspect some Thai fish sauce and lime juice, but the cook’s not sharing his secret) before being garnished generously with diced raw garlic and cili padi.
Perfect timing and plenty of wok hei ensures that the flesh is moist while the fish skin is crunchy enough to be savoured as a snack. This is a dish you’d be sure to return for many a time.
Another favourite you shouldn’t miss is their three-cup chicken (sanpui kai). Lucky Loke’s version of this southern Chinese dish uses the traditional “three cups” of sauces – soy sauce, sesame oil and Chinese rice wine – and adds a Taiwanese twist of ginger and basil leaves. Aromatic and subtly minty, this is another sure-fire hit.
Their stir-fried bittergourd with salted egg uses both the white and the yolk, whereas other daichows usually use only the yolk. The result is soft puffs of salted egg dressing rounds of bittergourd that still retain a nice bite to it. Do also try the assam tiger prawns fried with eggplant and tomato; its gravy is yet another reason to call for more rice!
“Join a table”
Daichows are one of the beating arteries of a thriving neighbourhood. This is communal living and communal dining at its best; during peak hours and busy nights, you may be sharing a table with other patrons – a friendly practice known as dap toi (“join a table” in Cantonese).
More than that though, daichows are also a place for those of us who come from out of town. It’s a place for us to gather, eat together, laugh and be a family. It may not be a taste of our hometowns, not exactly, but it's a taste of home.
Dining out at a daichow is a simple experience but a nourishing one. Just remember to invite more people to join you at your table; the more bellies to fill, the more dishes to try!
Wooi Mei Seafood Restaurant
1080, Jalan 17/29, Section 17, Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Restoran OK Seafood
175, Jalan Aminuddin Baki, Taman Tun Dr. Ismail, Kuala Lumpur
Restoran Lucky Loke
Lorong SS3/59E, Petaling Jaya Selangor
All daichows open daily, 6pm till late (occasionally closed with or without prior notice).
This story was first published in the print edition of The Malay Mail, July 26, 2013.