Where: Hawker Hall, 98 Chapel Street Windsor
What: Overrated Malaysian food
Who: Resident Photographer, Conflicted Pescatarian, Oxford Brosé
Bloat score: 3 – I could have balanced a glass of wine on my bloated stomach
I’d resisted going to Hawker Hall for the longest time because I am highly sceptical of hawker centres that a) aren’t in Asia and b) charge you $19 for a Hainanese chicken rice. It’s also hard work paying homage to Malaysian food – the best cuisine in the world (in my completely objective, unbiased opinion) – where each dish is made by a specialist chef who has honed their craft making that one dish across the course of their entire life. You don’t go to a hawker centre and see the same stall serving up char kuay teow and beef rendang, but Hawker Hall departs from this tradition by placing the skills required to make tens of dishes on a few chefs’ heads.
Misgivings aside, I decided to cross the river to try to beat the infamous queues that form outside Hawker Hall from as early as 6pm. Thankfully it was a Monday night so there was no queue in sight.
The menu at Hawker Hall is a curious one for a restaurant that claims to “take its inspiration from the vibrant hawker centres of Singapore and Malaysia”. There are Malaysian staples on it such as roti canai, char kuay teow and mee goreng but there are also a few outliers – the gado gado is clearly a nod to Indonesia, while the chicken tikka and nebulous ‘fragrant Indian curry’ are clearly dishes originating from the subcontinent. It’s also a strange menu in that it assumes a certain amount of knowledge from its diners – ikan bilis and sambal belacan aren’t translated for those who may not know Malay – but there are generic sounding dishes on the menu which don’t bear any resemblance to Malaysian food as well, like ‘toasted coconut meatballs’ (dafuq is that?) and ‘fragrant curry of chickpea and vegetables’ (this sounds like something I’d whip up at home from a pantry of leftovers).
But we made some decisions, accounting for the fact that Conflicted Pescatarian only eats vegetables and seafood, although his partner Resident Photographer insists that we order the Malay coconut beef rendang. Oxford Brosé, who spoke Queen’s English even before he’d moved to the preppy schoolboy haven of Oxford and had been imbibing rosé before the ‘real men drink pink’ phenomenon started, ordered his favourite drink off the menu as did I. Conflicted Pescatarian and Resident Photographer both sampled beers from Hawker Hall’s extensive craft menu.
First up was the Nyonya-style popcorn fried chicken. Nyonya is a cuisine that marries Chinese fare with Malay influences on account of early Chinese migrants settling down in Malaysia from the 13th century onwards. The food that falls under this umbrella is tangy, spicy and pungent due to the inclusion of tamarind, chilli, laksa leaves, coconut milk and lemongrass in many of its renowned dishes – from chicken pongteh and otak otak to Nyonya laksa and squid sambal. It’s one of my favourite cuisines that I grew up eating in Kuala Lumpur.
This popcorn fried chicken, whose title reminded me of the Taiwanese snack except it lacked the zing of Chinese five spice and salt, bore no trace of Nyonya food apart from the accompanying mayo which appeared to be mixed in with sambal. Resident Photographer was a big fan and while I appreciated it for its deep fried quality, I wasn’t all that impressed.
The boiled prawn and ginger dumplings were reminiscent of the classic yum cha dish ‘har gow’ with a rubbery, glutinous casing that gave way to a savoury mishmash of prawn meat laced with ginger and herbs. I enjoyed these.
The tofu fries were my favourite starter. Long oblongs of battered tofu had crispy casing that gave way to pillowy, salty insides. These were incredibly umami but we tried not to eat too many so Conflicted Pescatarian had something to munch on when our beef rendang arrived.
The beef rendang with jasmine rice was as aromatic and full-bodied as a good beef rendang should be. The chunks of beef that had been slow cooked in coconut milk fell apart easily and the toasted grated coconut on top of the dish added a pleasing sweetness. This could have perhaps been spicier, and the aftertaste of coconut oil used was more overpowering than I’m used to, but all in all it was an authentic rendition.
The highlight of my night was the baked salmon coated in a fragrant, dry Indian curry that was served with tamarind rice. The salmon was cooked perfectly with crisp outsides and creamy, buttery flesh that melted in your mouth. Coupled with the tanginess of the curry paste and the tamarind rice, this dish was a hit with all of us.
The char kuay teow was perhaps the biggest letdown. The flat and wide rice noodles were slicked with oil and peppered with prawns, scrambled egg and lup cheong (Chinese sausage) but they didn’t have the wok hei so integral to char kuay teow. I also kept biting on some miscellaneous crunchy ingredient that was spread out across the char kuay teow (I’m guessing it must have been caramelised lard or pork) but it was gritty in texture, which was an unpleasant sensation.
There were Malaysian dishes that Hawker Hall had certainly nailed, such as the beef rendang, but the more successful dishes weren’t traditionally Malaysian – from the tofu fries to the fragrant baked salmon. While what Hawker Hall serves up isn’t reminiscent of the Malaysian food I know and love, it had enough Malaysian in it to cause my tummy to swell to an impressive three-bloat level.
Despite enjoying some of the dishes at Hawker Hall, I’d always much rather quell my homesickness by going to Malaysian-run restaurants such as Sarawak Kitchen and Sarawak Kitchen Express that are hitting all the right notes for half the price.
Hawker Hall is open from 11am to 11pm Sunday to Thursday and from 12pm to 11pm Friday to Saturday.