Restoran Setapak Teochew, Kuala Lumpur

Restoran Setapak Teochew

This third blog post is part of Food Safari Kuala Lumpur 2014 – a series of
ten mouth-watering blog posts of the best eats during my 9-day trip to the city.

~~~~~~~~O~~~~~~~~

Good restaurants serve good food. But great restaurants serve iconic dishes that set them apart from their peers. This sang har meen is iconic Malaysian for many reasons.

In the dark and cold morning hours on 15 April 1912, RMS Titanic hit an iceberg during its maiden voyage and sank within two hours and forty minutes, its wreckage plunging 1,517 lives into the icy abyss of the North Atlantic ocean.

It is also in the year 1912, that a young man started a restaurant which stood the test of time for three generations. Today, his seventy four year old grandson, Mr Ng Soo Teng and his wife (cover image above) are running this century old Malaysian eating house.

Restoran Setapak Teochew in Kuala Lumpur happens to be one of my cousins KK and WY’s favourite restaurants. Being food lovers, they come here every week. Today, they have brought my friend David and I to introduce some of their favourite dishes.

Restaurants and street food abound in KL. Without local knowledge, finding good food can be a hit and miss affair. Having lived in KL for many years, I feel a strong sense of familiarity yet I know the quality of certain restaurants are not as good as they used to be. Coupled with many new eateries, it is wise to take advice from those with their noses firmly set on the local food trail.

Signature dish advertising on the wall, Restoran Setapak Teochew, Kuala Lumpur

Signature dish advertising on the wall, Restoran Setapak Teochew, Kuala Lumpur

Tai chow in Cantonese literally means ‘big stir-fry’. In Malaysia, this term is also used to describe street hawker stalls and coffee shops that serve familiar home-style cooking. In Singapore, these places are known as ‘zi char‘ among Mandarin-speaking locals.

I love the casual setting of these restaurants and signature dishes are nonchalantly displayed on their walls.

Dining room, Restoran Setapak Teochew, Kuala Lumpur

Dining room, Restoran Setapak Teochew, Kuala Lumpur

Just like a music songbook with favourite hit songs, Restoran Setapak Teochew can be regarded as a tai chow because its menu boasts familiar home-cooked dishes that will resonate with any food-loving family.

Eating utensils and Chinese tea cups in hot water

Eating utensils and Chinese tea cups in hot water

True to time-honoured tradition, Chinese tea is served with tea cups arriving in a bowl of piping hot water.

Diced raw garlic and rinsing chopsticks with hot water

Diced raw garlic and rinsing chopsticks with hot water

Diced raw garlic is an important part of tai chow eating culture. When mixed with fresh red chillies and soy sauce, it’s a potent dipping sauce that adds oomph to stir-fried noodles and rice dishes.

The age old practice of sanitizing all the eating utensils, bowls and tea cups are well and truly alive in KL.

“Don’t touch the chopsticks and tea cups” my cousin WY tells me. “Just let my brother rinse them, he prefers doing it in his own style” she laughs.

KK rinses the utensils like a regular tai chow connoisseur. One soup spoon is used to bath hot water onto the chopsticks. Eating bowls are spinned on its side to clean the edges and insides. I enjoy watching him perform this ritual just as much as I suspect he enjoys this pre-meal foreplay.

'Pak mai fun' stir-fried rice vermicelli RM20 / A$6.90

Pak mai fun stir-fried rice vermicelli RM20 / A$6.90

“The pak mai fun is their specialty here” KK tells David and I.

Restoran Setapak Teochew’s pak mai fun or stir-fried rice vermicelli is one of its special dishes that we came here for today.

Many people think pak mai fun is soupy fish head noodles. But I knew this noodle dish is special with sliced fish cake, crispy har mai (deep fried shrimp), beansprouts, onion slices and its signature wok hei.

It is so skillfully stir-fried, there is hardly a trace of oil on the shiny aluminium platter the noodles are sitting on.

Needless to say, the ingredient that adds panache and character to the noodles is generous bits of crispy deep-fried pork lard. This dish is one of the highlights of my food safari  in KL.

Stir-fried Hokkien noodles (white style) RM8 / A$2.75

Stir-fried Hokkien noodles (white style) RM8 / A$2.75

Stir-fried Hokkien noodles are a little different because it does not involve caramel black sauce in the tradition of Malaysian style Hokkien mee.

Instead, the noodles are light in appearance with pork slices, fish cake and a healthy dose of smoky wok hei.

'Sang har meen' or fresh water prawn noodles RM65 / A$22.40

'Sang har meen' or fresh water prawn noodles RM65 / A$22.40

I love Malaysian style sang har meen or fresh water prawn noodles which come in a few different styles.

At Restoran Setapak Teochew, sang har meen arrives bubbling hot in a claypot. The style of soup is somewhere within the spectrum of thick gooey Cantonese egg sauce and fresh prawn noodles in clear broth.

The price of this dish depends on how many prawns you order. Today, we order three large prawns (approximately RM20 / A$6.90 each prawn depending on individual weight) which are slit lengthwise.

To me, this dish is one of the ultimate king prawn dishes from Malaysia. I am no food historian but I believe fresh water prawns with their distinctively huge heads must have inspired Chinese chefs to extract maximum flavour by using the holy trinity of Chinese cooking ingredients ~ garlic, ginger and shallots. Pork and chicken stock is used to gently braised fresh wanton mee which has been deep-fried to give the noodles a firm texture.

Deep fried onions are more of a South East Asian than a Chinese food influence. Combined with fresh shallots and prawns, the fragrant aroma is distinctively Malaysian.

If I have a gripe, it’s only minor but it does make a difference. Knife work on the shallots are rough and can be improved for better flavour release. When shallots are diced very fine, a little goes a long way and visually, it also looks more elegant and refined as a garnish.

'Sang har meen' or fresh water prawn noodles

'Sang har meen' or fresh water prawn noodles, fresh red & green chillies and diced garlic in background

Good restaurants serve good food. But great restaurants serve iconic dishes that set them apart from their peers. This sang har meen is iconic Malaysian for many reasons.

The meat of these fresh water king prawns is firm and takes on texture similar to lobsters and crayfish. Combined with a rich and heady prawn, chicken and pork gravy with fresh flavours of garlic and ginger, these noodles are truly heaven in a bowl. These crustaceans are also reared and harvested in many farms across rural Malaysia.

Growing up in KL in the 1970s, I distinctively remember this style of sang har meen to be very popular in Dragon’s Court chinese restaurant at the Merlin Hotel (now called Concorde Hotel at the corner of Jalan Ampang and Jalan Sultan Ismail). There was a bowling alley at the top of the spiral staircase from the restaurant and a koi pond with tortoises that kids were so fixated on.

This style of sang har meen was the ‘go-to dish’ for every Chinese family after having dim sum which the restaurant was so famous for at the time. I am glad my cousins brought me here because this lunch evoked fond childhood memories.

In the news: Mr Ng Soo Teng with his cakes and biscuit

In the news: Mr Ng Soo Teng with his cakes and biscuits

Restoran Setapak Teochew also sells Malaysian biscuits, cakes and pastries which are popular for weddings and Chinese New Year among the locals.

As we finish our meal, Mr Ng comes to our table to chat with my cousins KK and WY being regular and loyal customers. He proudly tells us about a fourth generation in the business – his 39-year old son Ng Kheng Siang, is now head chef in the kitchen.

When I am in KL, I feel compelled to support restaurants like Setapak Teochew. To me, a small and humble business preserving its quality through hands-on family commitment has far more pedigree than large restaurant chains with chandeliers and valet parking. After all, the best meals that I fondly remember are always those cooked with love and care by my late grandmother and my mother.

After nearly one hundred and two years, the RMS Titanic may be resting peacefully at the bottom of the North Atlantic ocean. At the same time, Restoran Setapak Teochew is also sitting pretty in the heart of tai chow dining in KL.

Restoran Setapak Teochew, Kuala Lumpur

Restoran Setapak Teochew, Kuala Lumpur

Here’s some of my tips when planning a food safari in KL:

  • Do some basic research on eat streets, hawkers and restaurants which are known for particular Malaysian style dishes to get some idea about whether the food actually suits your tastes.
  • Local weather can be warm and humid, so do wear loose and comfortable clothing.
  • Comfortable footwear is important if you are planning to walk the streets of KL.
  • Carry bottled water and lots of face tissues for those deliciously greasy noodles.
  • Pace yourself and avoid snacking on all sorts of foods as calories do add up quickly.
  • Be very certain about what’s in your food if you have food allergies.
  • Carry medication for diarrhoea and food-poisoning, especially if you are consuming street food for the first time or have even built up resistance.
  • Be vigilant on the streets as some areas of KL are notorious for petty crimes such as snatch thieves and pickpockets. Avoid carrying loose handbags, large amounts of cash, important travel documents, credit cards and elaborate jewellery. 

Restoran Setapak Teochew, Kuala Lumpur
283 Jalan Setapak
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Tel: +60 3 4023 8706

Opening hours: Monday to Saturday 7.30am to 4pm. Closed on Sundays.

*Note: This restaurant is non-halal.

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7 Responses to Restoran Setapak Teochew, Kuala Lumpur

  1. Chris says:

    Have to persuade relatives to take me there next time I am in the area. Like you, I do love supporting small local businesses, no Starbucks for me! Just wanted to make a point abt how ppl still do the washing thing of cups and chopsticks at the table. One must understand that the hot water is actually perfect for brewing bacteria, so really sort of defeats the purpose. To truly sanitize, the water must be at a rolling boil for several minutes. My father-in-law was a health inspector in HK, and he would do this as well. I did confront him on this silliness, and he did agree. But, he still would do it, but to prove a point, I would ask that he leaves my utensils alone. I have to say he has more issues with coughs and colds than ever!

    • Chopinand says:

      Dear Chris,

      I agree with you about the washing of utensils.

      Even though I live in Sydney, I know I have built up sufficient resistance to withstand all the germs and bacteria that I don’t see in the dirty kitchens and street stalls. That’s what makes the food so damn tasty!

  2. bams Kitchen says:

    Fantastic post! Your photos are just beautiful. the fresh water prawn noodles look like something I want to try. How do you take such great photos in a dark restaurant? Take Care, BAM

  3. So much history here! And I love watching the pre-eating dish washing ritual that people do. It’s like performance art at the table. lol

  4. tigerfish says:

    The Pak Mai Fun and Fresh Prawns Sang Har Meen looks so….(allow-me-to-use-the-word)….”SHIOK”! :)

    • Chopinand says:

      Dear tigerfish,

      Both dishes were definitely highlights during my food safari and you’re right – really ‘shiok’!!!

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