Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Pelangi City - The One Man Master Zhe Char Chef

The far more famous San Low was doing very brisk business that night, and the bright lights in this establishment seemed to indicate that it was soaking in all the spotlight around this area.

Not many folks would venture just across the road to a far smaller eatery, and with much humbler furnishings. There was literally a table lined up in a parking space, but the energy level was somehow even busier here.

Pelangi City is a Johor zhe char place that is run by a husband and wife team. Mr Choong cooks every single dish, and does all the cooking all by himself.

His wife helps out by serving the loyal diners every night, and that's all there is to it. The zhe char is not also not just your standard Chinese fare you get in Singapore, but a fusion of Malay spices and curry that will tantalize your taste buds.

The food here may not be premium crabs and lobsters, but it is the skill and passion that Mr Choong infuses in his cooking that impresses. And impressed us he did.

Curry Fish Head

Curry fish head is always about getting the freshest catch of the day, and Mr Choong admittedly cannot compete with larger restaurants for the biggest, freshest fish heads, so he uses the head of a red snapper instead. And the results are no less spectacular.

The curry was cooked to a aromatic giddiness and combined with the sweetness of the ladyfingers and the eggplants, the dish had a smorgasbord of flavors that will remain for quite some time.

Fried Black Pomfret with Fried Chai Poh

Black pomfret was used for this unique dish. The fish was deep fried to a crispy exterior while retaining the sweetness of the meat within. What set this plate apart was the topping of the fried preserved vegetables (chai poh) that just brought this fish to another level. Or more rightly, out of this world.

We are so used to eating the usual chai poh with chwee kueh, but not many may have eaten it deep fried to a crisp and crunchy texture. It was just so delectable that it would not be difficult to finish a plate of plain rice with just this amazing garnish on its own. With the grass fish, it was utterly and incredibly delicious.

Wok Fried Cabbage and Dried Chilli

JK remarked that this was his personal favorite for the night, and I could instantly identify with his sentiment. Cabbage and chilli are 2 of the simplest and cheapest ingredients, and in a lesser cook's hands, it might be bland and unremarkable.

Mr Choong showed with this dish what an exceptional chef he is. The sharpness of the chilli was nicely extracted without overheating our palate, and the sweetness of the cabbage was just enough not to overcook the vegetable to a soggy mess. It still had a firm crunch to the bite and no resistance after that initial bite.

The sauce was robust and flavorful. And it was neither too watery nor too starchy like what you get in 99 percent of zhe char stalls in Singapore today. Only a great cook can cook to such a delicate balance and bring out the maximum flavors of each individual component. Marvelous.

Curry Prawns

The curry in the curry prawns was even better than the fish head. The curry sauce was more syrupy, and more lemak (coconut flavors). The kaleidoscope of spices within the spicy broth was just too stunning to even put into words.

The prawns are average in size, but again, it was not the lack of premium quality that astonished us, but the fact that Mr Choong has an ability to infuse the sweetness of the crustacean to power up the curry flavors to a higher gear. And yes, only a great cook knows that the best flavors come from the smaller shrimp. 

Sweet and Sour Pork

Most places I would simply skip this popular dish, as they are so poorly cooked these days. Here, Mr Choong bucks the trend by delivering one of the best versions of sweet and sour pork around.

The pork pieces were well seasoned and fried, retaining all the crispiness on the outside and still had a tender and moist interior. The batter and oil were all just about perfect and looked deliciously golden.

The sauce was not overly ketchup heavy and the balance of the onions and peppers were all finely tuned to give a beautiful overall balance of flavors and textures. Superb.

Fried Sotong

This dish may be very common in Singapore, but again, not many zhe char places do a half decent version nowadays. Mr Choong actually has a sotong ring version that is supposed to be even better than the usual sotong head variant.

Nevertheless, the sweetness of the caramelized exterior was both comforting and uplifting and was a perfect way to finish off the meal. Just perfectly deep fried to a distinguished level of sotong goodness and well washed down with a glass of beer.

The Incredibly Talented Mr Choong

Watching him move around the kitchen, it was obvious Mr Choong is a master at what he does. The kitchen is his sole arena and there is little doubt that anyone else should even dare venture in without his permission.

Despite the highly regimental conditions, Mr Choong could afford curious diners to take a peek and watch him wok fry with equal amounts of aplomb and relish. He was not being theatrical either, for that is just how he does his work. Full of vigor and passion and down to earth all at once.

Mrs Choong was equally diligent, moving from table to table with the ease of a ballerina, taking orders with an emphatic smile and eagerness. Never for one moment do you sense that she is not enjoying the fact that she and her husband are relishing feeding hungry diners coming from all walks of Johor.

It is such folks that you feel that despite the simpler and less brightened surroundings, that you are simply having the homecooked goodness of the Choongs being brought out to you.

Maybe Sen Low may have the bigger reputation, but there was no doubt we had a bigger appetite at Pelangi City. And much bigger tummies afterwards. Wink.

Pelangi City.
Stall 11 Taman Serene Food Centre
Jalan Biru, opposite the brighter San Low

All videography and photography and editing by Ian Low.
Music written, performed and produced by Ian Low.
Shot and edited entirely on an iPhone 5S.
No sotong was injured during the shooting of this video.

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