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LAI PO HEEN,
Level 1, Mandarin Oriental Kuala Lumpur,
Kuala Lumpur.
Tel: 03-2179 8885
Business hours: Noon to 2.30pm (Monday to Friday),
10.30am to 2.30pm (weekends and public holidays)
7pm to 10.30pm (dinner).
Pork-free.

WHAT is it that makes claypot dishes such a draw?

There are two ways of looking at it, said Mandarin Oriental Kuala Lumpur’s Chinese sous chef Tan Kwang Aik, who had spent many evenings researching at a claypot chicken rice eatery in Pudu for the promotion at the hotel’s Lai Po Heen restaurant.

A dish is not considered a bonafide claypot dish if it is merely served in a clay pot, he said.

“In this case, the pot is merely a receptacle, just fulfilling an aesthetic role, nothing more,” said Tan.

The real deal, said Tan, requires a dish to spend at least 15 mins in a clay receptacle. It is crucial to take note of this magical number as claypot cooking is about timing, he added

The grouper fish dish with sliced leek and shimeji mushrooms is a case in point.

“Cooking fish, due to its delicate nature, requires precision. Too long, it burns. Too short a time, one ends up with a half-cooked dish.

Claypot grouper fish with deep fried cuttle fish.

Claypot grouper fish with deep fried cuttle fish.

“To preserve this smokey fragrance and wok hei, the lidding and unlidding has to be done at the precise moment,” said Tan, who got the fish done to a beautiful flaky turn, accompanied by a host of differing textures.

One other version presented here is the smoked garoupa, so named after the smoky flavours of a 13-spice powder coating the flesh before it is deep-fried.

This carries a heavier flavour than the earlier dish and is an ideal pairing for the beef tenderloin with its musky notes of fermented black bean paste. This hearty meat dish comes with a fiery introduction, but is subtle enough to make way for the goodness of Australian beef to shine through.

Not every act is as brisk. The tender beef short ribs, served with black mushrooms, bamboo shoots and white radish is a delightful experience of how soft bone and muscle should feel to the palate – pleasantly crunchy with melt-in-your-mouth moments where the tendons are located.

 

Whole abalone in clay pot.

Whole abalone in clay pot.

This required a three-hour steam boiling process and a deep-fry process, which melted the excess fat.

Among the no-nos to observe in this cooking class are that leafy vegetables will wilt in the intense heat. The baby cabbage in the sun-dried oyster sauce abalone and scallop dish, revealed Tan, was actually added at the last minute as garnish.

Another point is not to be “penny wise, pound foolish” when investing in a clay pot. Give the cheap versions a pass, as they will not last, advised Tan.

“You need the pot to have weight. The light ones will soon crack,” he said.

The pots at Lai Po Heen, revealed Tan, has been in use since 1998. They have gone through a seasoning process, soaked in water for 72 hours to remove traces of chemical residue.

Ultimately, clay pot cooking is all about flavour.

“In each dish, we have ‘encouragers’ to boost the smokey flavour,” said Tan.

These “encouragers” would be the deep-fried cuttlefish whiskers, dried bonito flakes in the dancing chicken (top pic), fried anchovies of the tiniest size soaked in an XO sauce in the tiger prawn dish.

It is also no coincidence that the seafood combination dish of baby abalone, pearl shell clam, scallops and sea cucumber in black truffle were sun dried. Sun dried food is believed to give a dish a more intense character.

Just how well does clay pot cooking sit in a restaurant which has interiors said to have been inspired by the great ancestral homes of 19th Century Chinese tycoons?

Tan gave us an inkling.

“In 10 months, this is the third time we’ve run a clay pot promotion. That is how popular clay pot flavours are with our diners,” he smiled.

Priced at RM58 onwards per dish, the clay pot promotion is available until May 31.

This is the writer’s personal observation and is not an endorsement by StarMetro.

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