Plum Valley Restaurant, Chinatown

I’m a creature of habit. I not only frequent the same restaurants, but I also order the exact same thing most of the time. Unsurprisingly, I have my list of favourite Chinese/dim sum restaurants in London. In fact, I don’t think I have tried dim sum at any place that isn’t on that list in recent years.

Having said that, I do like discovering other good restaurants, and had the opportunity to do so recently, courtesy of Cox and Kings. Cox and Kings are one of the world’s oldest travel companies, and pride themselves on specialising in high quality cultural (both group and private) holidays all over the world. In particular, they have a wonderful selection of holidays to China (a country I am yet to explore!). In line with the whole “China” theme, they invited a group of bloggers to review a selection of restaurants in Chinatown – with the aim of showcasing the range and standard of Chinatown eateries.

So this is how I ended up at Plum Valley.

Plum Valley offer both an a la carte and dim sum menu, but we chose the latter as it would allow us to sample a wider variety of their dishes. It also enabled me to perform a fairer assessment of the food, as dim sum offerings tend to be fairly standard (with a few exceptions, naturally!)

plum valley har kau

Prawn dumplings (Har kau). These steamed dumplings are a dim sum staple, and are personally a must order for me, especially in a new restaurant. These were good, with thin skins and a succulent prawn filling.

plum valley siu mai

Pork & prawn dumplings (Siu mai). Whilst the prawn dumplings were good, the siu mai unfortunately fell a little short. The pork used for the dumpling fillings seemed a tad too gelatinous, which resulted in a rather chewy texture.

plum valley black cod dumpling

Black cod dumplings. I was intrigued by these, as it was something that’s not seen commonly on dim sum menus. I was rather excited when they came to the table, as they looked rather intricate and pretty! Unfortunately they did not taste as good as they looked – the dumpling skin was very doughy, which led to a rather sandy texture. The black cod filling also seemed to be slightly overcooked. A shame, because this held much promise.

plum valley crispy eel cheung fun

Crispy eel cheung fun. I am a huge fan of contrasting textures, and this certainly delivered. The crispy fried eel worked well with the soft cheung fun – although it admittedly tasted a little more Japanese than Chinese!

plum valley scallop dumpling

Scallop dumplings. I was surprised to see them using some gold leaf on the top of these – pretty yes, but rather un-Chinese really. These tasted fine, but I would have preferred a larger piece of scallop – I suspect a whole scallop had been sliced into three to top these, which is a little stingy. I would prefer to pay more and get a whole scallop, but perhaps that is just my greed talking.

plum valley chicken feet in black bean sauce

Chicken feet in black bean sauce. This was cooked well, and had good flavour.

plum valley venison yam puff

Venison yam puffs. A slight tweak on the classic yam puffs. The ‘yam puff’ bit was rather well executed, but the venison filling lacked that ‘oomph’ I was hoping for.

plum valley xo fried rice

XO fried rice. The humble fried rice, which should be easy to whip up, is in reality quite a hard dish to get right. One of the most important aspects of any wok-fried dish is something called ‘wok hei’, which not-so-literally translates to “breath of the wok”. This dish had plenty of this, and was something I’d order again. Doesn’t look like much, but it delivered on taste.

A quick note on other aspects of the restaurant: Service (which is often poor or non-existent in many Chinatown restaurants) was actually pretty good – the food arrived in good time, and all requests were promptly dealt with.

Lastly, decor was fairly modern, with a decent amount of space between the tables. A little too posh perhaps, but in all fairness they market themselves as a ‘fine dining’ restaurant. I would have preferred it if the dining area was slightly better lit though – this is purely a personal preference stemming from the fact that I never saw a dimly lit Chinese restaurant growing up!

pplum valley dim sum

So yes – there were highs and lows of the meal. I cannot say I would rush back to dine here, but I would not rule out returning to try other offerings on their menu. At the end of it all, I feel that the quality of food is similar to the other Chinatown restaurants I have tried – but I maintain that better dim sum can be found outside Chinatown itself.

plum valley

Plum Valley
20 Gerrard Street
Chinatown
London W1D 6JQ

Disclaimer: I dined at Plum Valley courtesy of Cox and Kings, and also received a wine voucher as a token of appreciation. However, all views expressed above are my own. This review will also be published in ‘Compass’, their in-house travel magazine.

Chinese New Year: Almond cookies, with crunch!

Most Malaysians equate Chinese New Year with a few important things = family, friends, FOOD, and well, food. And let’s face it, it wouldn’t be Chinese New Year without all those typical CNY cookies – pineapple tarts, peanut cookies… and so forth.

I made some almond cookies last year, but wasn’t altogether pleased with their texture. You see, to me almond cookies should have a slight crunch, yet be slightly melty. My version from last year tasted good enough, but it didn’t have much of that ‘crunch factor’. I know I’m being pedantic, but if you’re going to stuff yourself with cookies, it might as well be ones you love!

chinese new year almond cookies 3

I found this recipe in one of the cookbooks I bought in Penang (oh yes, I totally buy local cookbooks whenever I go home – then lug them all back to London), and thought it looked promising. And it did deliver!

These cookies have a nice crunchy/firm exterior, with a slight melty interior. If you have never tasted such almond cookies, you must think I am completely bonkers. I know it sounds mad, but it works. Remarkably well, might I add.

chinese new year almond cookies 5

As always, I managed to eat 5 cookies in the first hour post-baking. I then had to take fairly drastic action to keep them all away in a sealed container, so I can’t get to them before Chinese New Year comes along! Yes, I am THAT lazy. If it’s sealed/hard to get to, I rather not eat it. Ha!

If you prefer a soft/completely ‘melt in the mouth’ almond cookie, you’ll prefer my recipe from last year. But if you prefer one with a slight crunch, try this one. I think you’ll like it!

chinese new year almond cookies 2

Chinese New Year Almond Cookies
Adapted from My Secret Recipe Series: New Year Cookies by Alan Ooi
Makes approximately 50-60 cookies, depending on size

  • 100g ground almonds
  • 150g plain flour
  • 100g caster sugar (I might cut down the sugar to 75g next time, as I prefer a less-sweet cookie)
  • 3/4tsp baking powder
  • 3/4tsp baking soda
  • pinch salt
  • 100ml corn oil, or other flavourless oil (you may need a little more/less oil depending on the climate you are in)
  • 1 egg yolk, beaten

1. Sieve the flour, caster sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt into bowl of your stand mixer.
2. Add the ground almonds to the flour/sugar mixture.
3. With your mixer on medium speed (with the beater attachment),* slowly trickle in the corn oil into the bowl containing the flour/sugar/almonds. Mix until a cohesive dough forms. You may need more or less oil depending on the humidity/moisture levels – the aim is to reach a dough which is just able to hold it’s shape (and doesn’t crumble) when you attempt to roll it into a ball. It’s rather dry here in London at the moment, so I had to use an extra 10ml of oil before the dough came together.
4. Heat the oven to 180’C.
5. Roll the dough into ~2.5cm balls, and place on a baking tray lined with parchment paper/a silpat mat. Repeat until all the dough is used up.
6. Using a pastry brush, lightly glaze the tops of the cookie balls with the beaten egg yolk.
7. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the cookies become slightly golden.
8. Leave to cool on a wire rack, then tuck in.

* You don’t need a stand mixer to do this, you can use a handheld mixer/food processor/a spatula. I use my stand mixer because it’s permanently out on the counter, which makes it the easiest option. I told you I was lazy.

chinese new year almond cookies 4

Billy Law’s vinegar-braised pork belly & eggs

Well technically, it’s his mum’s recipe. But “Billy’s mum’s vinegar-braised pork belly & eggs” seemed a little bit long for a title!

For those of you who are not familiar with the name, Billy Law is a Malaysian (like myself) based in Australia. I first got to know of him through his food blog “A Table For Two”. Not long after, he appeared on one of my favourite shows – Masterchef Australia! For those of you who haven’t watched the Aussie version of Masterchef… you’re missing out! 🙂 Most people I know prefer the Australian format of the show, so it’s definitely worth watching to see if you like it.

But I digress.

Billy recently released his debut cookbook, aptly titled “Have You Eaten?”. I think he explains his choice of title very well here: “In Malaysia, it is quite common for Malaysians to greet each other saying, ‘Have you eaten?’ instead of the usual ‘Hey how are you’. I simply couldn’t think of anything more appropriate for the title of a cookbook that reflects my background, my culture, and my food.” And you know what, he is absolutely right. Though to be perfectly honest it usually comes out in typical Manglish (Malaysian English) as “Eat already ah?” 😉

I must admit that I was impressed by his cookbook after a quick flip through the book. Here’s a little confession: I almost never buy cookbooks that don’t “look” nice. Photography (and the way recipes are laid out) are the most important aspects of a cookbook to me, and I immediately loved the photography of this cookbook – which was, by the way, mostly styled and photographed by Billy himself. Some people have all the talent, hrmph!

The cookbook is divided into several chapters: “Snack Attack” (smaller bites e.g. Brie en croute with cranberries & walnuts); “On the Side” (e.g. Roast spiced cauliflower & corn salad); “Easy Peasy” (simple dishes e.g. Cola chilli chicken); “Over the Top” (more adventurous recipes e.g. Nonya spicy tamarind snapper); “Rice and Noodles” (all Malaysian/Chinese recipes e.g. “Nasi lemak”); and “Sugar Hit” (desserts e.g. Popcorn & salted caramel macarons). There is a good mix of both Malaysian/Chinese (think “Assam laksa” and “Kangkung belacan”) and non-Malaysian recipes (“Smoked ham hock baked beans”, “Lamb shank pie”, and “Rocky Road”). Now I know “non-Malaysian” isn’t exactly descriptive, but I have no idea how else to put it!

I cooked “Mum’s vingear-braised pork belly & eggs” from the “Easy Peasy” chapter, and it turned out remarkably well. I usually don’t put vinegar in my braised pork belly dish (called “Tau Yew Bak” in Hokkien), so I definitely learnt a new trick! I made a few tweaks to the recipe though – I used less sugar, and more chilli. A lot more chilli.

This is a remarkably easy dish to make, but it does have to be slow cooked for at least 2 hours to ensure the meat is meltingly tender. I can’t complain, I love dishes that don’t require much attention!

P.S. Scroll to the bottom to find out how to win a copy of this fabulous cookbook!

Billy’s Mum’s vingear-braised pork belly & eggs
From Billy Law’s “Have You Eaten?”

  • 2 liters water
  • 500g pork ribs
  • 500g pork belly, chopped into 3cm chunks
  • 5cm ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1 whole garlic, unpeeled
  • 10 star anise
  • 5 dried chillies (the recipe states this is optional. I used 10. Haha!)
  • 3 tablespoons white vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons dark soy caramel (I used a mix of kecap manis + dark soy sauce)
  • 100ml light soy sauce
  • 1 cup sugar (I used 1/4 cup)
  • 6 hard boiled eggs, peeled

1. Boil the water in a large pot over medium high heat, until it starts to bubble.
2. Add the pork ribs, pork belly, ginger, whole garlic, star anise and chillis to the pot of boiling water. Bring to the boil again.
3. Scoop out any impurities that float to the surface – I find that it is quite useful to use a small fine metal sieve. Alternatively, use a spoon.
4. Turn the heat down to low (until the liquid is simmering), and add the vinegar, dark soy caramel, light soy sauce, and sugar. Stir well.
5. Add the hard boiled eggs to the pot.
6. Cook on low heat for at least 2 hours (stirring occasionally), or until the pork is meltingly tender. I cooked it covered for the first hour, then left it uncovered for the remaining cooking time.
7. Once the sauce starts to thicken, taste, and adjust the seasoning accordingly. If it is too sour/too salty: add more sugar. If it is too sweet: add more light soy sauce. Billy notes that extra water should not be used, the exception being if the sauce is drying out too quickly!
8. Serve with rice (noodles work well too).

Have You Eaten? by Billy Law, £25 hardback, published by Hardie Grant, is now available at http://www.hardiegrant.co.uk/books/have-you-eaten-paperback

If you’re not convinced by what I’ve said here, have a look at what some other bloggers thought about the book (my post is part of a 5-part blog tour, ending today):
Monday 1st – http://junglefrog-cooking.com/
Tuesday 2nd – http://englishmum.com/
Wednesday 3rd – http://www.babaduck.com/
Thursday 4th – http://www.millycundall.com/
Friday 5th – Me!

And now – how can you WIN a copy of Have You Eaten?, thanks to Hardie Grant Books? Simply follow Hardie Grant on Twitter @hardiegrantuk and RT the relevant tweet – simples! Competition is only open to UK residents though (apologies to everyone who isn’t in the UK!). Winners will be announced on October 8 2012.

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of the cookbook, but all the views expressed above are my own.

My grandma’s bak chang / zong zi (glutinous rice dumpling)

There’s something to be said about recipes that are passed down in families. Somehow, your fondest memories of food are always what you ate growing up, and everything else that you eat later on in life is compared to those memories.

I grew up eating my grandma’s (I call her ‘Nai Nai’ 奶奶) bak chang, and this to me, has always been the best kind I can get anywhere. I’m sure everyone else will claim that their family’s version is the best though! 😉

For those of you who are not familiar with bak chang (肉粽): These babies are glutinous rice dumplings, wrapped in bamboo leaves. They’re also known as zong zi (粽子). There are many versions, including a sweet version made with alkaline water, and eaten with a sweet sauce. I haven’t had the sweet version for a good few years now, I must really learn how to make them (my grandma only makes the savoury pork ones).

They’re traditionally eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival (Duan Wu Jie 端午节), which usually falls on the fifth day of the fifth month in the lunar calendar – which falls on the June 23rd this year.  They are eaten to commemorate the poet Qu Yuan, who drowned himself in the Miluo river after his country’s capital (Chu state) was captured by the Qin state. The villagers then threw rice dumplings into the river, to keep the fish and evil spirits away from his body. And now, these rice dumplings are eaten every year as a way of remembering Qu Yuan. (Thank you Wiki and Wai Yee Hong for educating me.)

Anyway, I convinced my grandma to teach me how to make these bak chang during a recent trip home (is November of last year still recent?). Because I figure, I might as well start now – the wrapping takes years to perfect, and I’m not getting any younger!

I made these whilst R was at work, so unfortunately did not manage to take any step-by-step photos of the wrapping process. Next time. 🙂 I did find a fairly good video on youtube though, which you can view here. Watch from 0.50 secs onwards for the wrapping process.

Although it took me 2.5 hours to make (excluding the cooking time) to make these, they were definitely worth it. 🙂 Plus I now have a stash in the freezer for ‘times of need’.

A few notes:

  • All amounts are approximate. Please taste as you go along, and adjust as necessary!
  • Ingredients for the fillings (e.g. lap cheong, heh bee etc) can always be omitted if you wish to do so. There are no compulsory items when it comes to cooking this – well, except the glutinous rice that is.
  • Please place each ingredient in a separate bowl. This is because we want to place approximately equal amounts of each ingredient into each bak chang.
  • I highly recommend watching this video to get an idea of how to wrap the bak chang. Watch from 0.50 secs onwards.
Nai Nai’s bak chang
Makes approximately 19-20 
Ingredients:
  • 500g pork belly, chopped into ~ 2cm chunks
  • 1 kg glutinous rice
  • 20 dried chestnuts
  • 1 chinese rice bowl of dried shrimps (heh bee)
  • 1 chinese rice bowl of dried Chinese mushrooms – I used approximately 40 tiny ones
  • 1 Chinese sausage (lap cheong)
  • 6 salted duck eggs (we will only be using the yolks)
  • 20 shallots
For the pork belly marinade:
  • 3 tbsp oyster sauce
  • 1 tbsp light soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp dark soy sauce
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 tsp Shaoxing rice wine
  • 2 tbsp five spice powder
  • 1 tsp white pepper
For the rice marinade: (approximate amounts – you may need to adjust according to taste)
  • 5 tbsp oyster sauce
  • 5 tbsp dark soya sauce
  • 1 tbsp light soya sauce
  • 1 tbsp sesame oil
  • 1 tbsp white pepper
For wrapping:
  • at least 60 bamboo leaves (you need 2 per bak chang, with some spares in case of tears/holes in leaves)
  • cooking string/hemp leaves
Method:

The night before :

1. Soak the bamboo leaves in a large pot of cold water (I used my 28cm Le Creuset pot). Try to submerge as much of the leaves in the water as you possibly can.

2. Soak the glutinous rice in cold water.

3. Soak the chestnuts in cold water.

4. Mix all the ingredients for the pork marinade together. Pour it over the pork belly pieces, and leave to marinade overnight in the fridge.

Preparing the ingredients:

5. Cook the duck eggs in a pot of boiling water, for 10 minutes. Leave to cool sightly, peel, separating the yolk from the whites. We will only be using the yolks, so store the whites in the fridge for another use – I use them for steamed eggs, and as a condiment for porridge. Cut the yolks into quarters.

6. Soak dried shrimps in a bowl, using hot water.

7. Soak the Chinese mushrooms in a bowl, using hot water. If your mushrooms are very large you may want to slice them in half.

8. Slice the Chinese sausage into 1 cm slices.

9. Peel and finely dice the shallots. I cheat and use my mini food processor, which does the dicing in 5 seconds flat.

Cooking the ingredients:

10. Heat 1 tbsp corn oil in a large pan/wok. Using high heat, fry the Chinese sausage until they brown slightly and become fragrant, about 2 minutes. Remove from pan, and place in a bowl.

11. In the same pan, fry the dried shrimps until they become fragrant, about 2-3 minutes. Remove from pan, and place in a bowl.

11. In the same pan, fry the Chinese mushrooms until they become fragrant, and brown slightly. I usually season with a pinch of salt (old habits die hard). Remove from pan, and place in a bowl.

12. In the same pan, fry the pre-soaked chestnuts until they brown slightly. Remove from pan, and place in a bowl.

13. In the same pan, fry the pork belly chunks until they turn lightly browned. We’re not aiming to fully cook the pork belly here – the aim is to sear it briefly. Remove from pan, and place in a bowl.

14. Add 1 tbsp corn oil to the same pan. Fry the shallots until they become fragrant. Add the glutinous rice, and stir for 1 minute. Add all the ingredients for the rice marinade, and any leftover pork marinade you have. Taste, and add extra oyster sauce/dark soya sauce etc as necessary. Switch off the flame, and leave rice in the pan. You can always transfer the rice to a bowl, but why wash an extra bowl?

Wrapping the bak chang:

15. Drain the water from the bamboo leaves. Pat the leaves dry with a cloth – it doesn’t matter if they are still slightly wet.

16. Select two leaves, and place them in opposite directions (i.e. the tail end of one lining up with the top end of the other). Do not use any leaves which already have holes in them, as they will cause water to seep into the bak chang during the cooking process.

17. Form leaves into a cone.

18. Fill the cone about 1/3 of the way with the glutinous rice.

19. Then, place each of the following atop the rice: one chunk of pork belly, one chestnut, one/two Chinese mushrooms (use two if mushrooms are small), two slices of Chinese sausage, 1/2 tsp dried shrimps, and a piece of duck egg yolk.

20. Top with more glutinous rice, till you reach the brim of the cone.

21. Fold the leaves around the pouch, and secure with cooking string/hemp leaves.

22. Repeat with remaining leaves and ingredients, until everything is used up.

Cooking the bak chang:

23. Boil water in a large pot. When the water comes to a boil, gently lower the bak chang’s into the water. Make sure the entire bak chang is submerged in water. Cover the pot with a lid, and cook over medium heat for 2-3 hours. You may find that you need two pots if yours isn’t large enough.. I had to use two!

24. To test if they are cooked through – you’ll have to unwrap one and check. And taste. (The perks of cooking.)

25. Once the bak changs are cooked, remove from the pan and place in a colander – I use a colander as it allows any extra water to drain away. Alternatively you can hang them up, but I didn’t want water to drip all over my stove!

26. Once they have cooled slightly, unwrap and eat! I strongly recommend pairing it with Maggi’s garlic chilli sauce.

Note: Uneaten bak changs can be stored in the fridge for 3-5 days, and in the freezer for 2 months.


Chinese New Year: Kuih bangkit (coconut biscuits)

One of the integral things about Chinese New Year are the cookies that come along with it. Ask any Chinese person, and they’ll have their favourite Chinese New Year cookies/snacks. My top 3 are: groundnut/peanut cookiesarrowroot chips, and pineapple tarts.

Kuih bangkit is a Nyonya/Malaysian Chinese New Year cookie made from coconut milk, tapoica flour, sugar and eggs. It has a very characteristic texture: crispy on the outside, and soft on the inside – in fact they should melt in your mouth once you get past the crispy exterior. (And yes, ‘melt in the mouth’ seems to be a must for most Chinese New Year cookies!) Mum & dad aren’t huge fans of kuih bangkit, so I never ate much of it growing up. Not compared to groundnut cookies anyway! 😉

The other characteristic of kuih bangkit is the lovely designs you get when you use traditional kuih bangkit molds. The original molds are made from wood (and all hand-carved), whereas you can get plastic ones nowadays.

I’d heard from countless people that kuih bangkit are tricky little morsels to make, as whilst they look fairly simple, it’s not easy to get the right texture of crispy outsides/melty insides. I always like a challenge, so I thought – why not? Plus I would get a chance to use freshly squeezed coconut milk (“santan”), which is nigh impossible to find in London.

The most time consuming bit of making these is the cooking of the flour… the aim is (I believe) to get rid of the ‘raw’ taste of flour. Cooking the flour takes anything from 60-90 minutes. But it’s not the cooking/stirring that is the problem, it’s the fact that tapoica flour sends minute particles of flour all over your kitchen each time you stir it. I kid you not when I say there was a thin layer of flour over all the kitchen counters! (For those of you who haven’t worked with tapoica flour before, it’s similar to corn flour, i.e. lets out puffs of ‘flour dust’.)

Whilst the taste of these little babies were great, I wasn’t altogether happy with their texture, as they weren’t crispy enough on the outside. Plus they cracked a little, meaning the lovely intricate designs on the kuih became less pronounced. I’m hearing conflicting things when it comes to kuih bangkit – are they supposed to crack, or not? If any of you know, please do let me know, as it would be good to know err.. what to aim for. 😛

I won’t be sharing the recipe for these kuih bangkit, as I don’t want to post a recipe I’m not happy with. Rest assured though that I will be making this again to try perfecting the recipe for next year!

Till then, Happy Chinese New Year to all of you! May the Year of the Dragon bring you happiness, good health, and good food. 😀