My friend Jeremy from Malaysia came into town this weekend for my birthday on Saturday. It was a pretty drunken affair which involved the Rossini Burger at Raffles, go karting at Kambol racetrack, absinthe shots and singing Loverboy at the Zeppelin bar. Needless to say, Sunday morning was not pretty. Luckily in my drunken haze, I made plans with Jeremy to try a Malaysian restaurant in Phnom Penh to see if it was the goods.
Oh it totally was…..
Hometown Bak Kutteh’s exterior exudes unassuming and if I have to be a bit honest, when I walked in felt like I had just walked into someone’s living room. There was some pretty kitschy elevator music (a rather weird version Police’s “Message in a Bottle” using a glockenspiel was playing when we walked in), there were boxes and sinks everywhere, and there was a kid playing a video game in the corner of the restaurant. Jeremy tells me that these places are all over Malaysia and that it was pretty authentic experience in terms of decor. Luckily, there was an air-conditioning unit blasting some cold air which isn’t seen in alot of these restaurants which is fine by me.
Let’s see if Hometown Bak Kutteh’s dishes pass Jeremy’s authenticity test.
Bak Kut Teh, or “pork rib tea” in Malaysian Hokkien, is a Chinese dish originating from around Fujian province in China that was brought to Malaysia with the influx of labourers in the 19th century. In Malaysia, it is most commonly associated with the town of Klang, about an hour west of Kuala Lumpur, and the version served at Hometown Bak Kutteh has a rich, slightly sweet broth, deeply infused with Chinese herbs, and tender pieces of pork rib, belly, intestine and stomach accompanied by tofu skin, tofu puffs, Chinese shiitake and lettuce, and is a fine example of the Klang tradition. No wonder too, as the proprietors hail from the area.
All the details were there in the accompaniments: crispy fried shallots garnishing the oily (but not too oily) rice, pieces of fresh deep-fried bread (known as youtiao in the West after the Mandarin name), and a little dipping saucer of sliced bird’s eye chili in light soya sauce. If you want to feast on an authentic version of Bak Kut Teh, you could do far worse even in Malaysia, much less in Phnom Penh. Highly recommended.
The word laksa is used for a wide variety of noodle soups in Malaysia and Singapore, with each town or city featuring their own version, some vastly different from each other. There are three main families: curry laksa, which uses coconut milk and curry powder or paste in its gravy; assam laksa, the most famous of which is Penang laksa, which has sour tamarind in a seafood-based broth; and Kuching laksa, which is a spicy coconut milk broth but is different in flavour from both of the former. (Full disclosure: since I’m a Kuching boy, you don’t have to guess very hard to know where my laksa loyalties lie). When we ordered, the proprietress asked if we wanted a mix of egg noodles and rice vermicelli, and I opted for this as my dining partners might not have tried this noodle combination.
The curry laksa here is drawn from the ones served in Chinese eateries in the Klang Valley area. It came topped with red barbecued pork, cockles, tofu puffs, slices of fish cake, a boiled egg. The curry in the broth was quite prominent, backed by undertones of seafood in the broth base, and finishing nicely with the richness of the coconut milk. Not the best curry laksa broth I’ve had, but not too far off. My only complaint would be that there was a bit too much noodle for the amount of gravy in the bowl.
Kway Teow is Malaysian Hokkien for a flat and broad rice noodle, and char kway teow is a stir-fry using this noodle as its main ingredient. Like almost anything in Malaysia, regional variations abound. The noodles were quite tasty, and there were delightful little pieces of crispy pork fat sprinkled throughout the dish, but I felt it lacked in wok hei, which is the Cantonese word for the smoky, slightly charred flavour imparted by the high temperatures achieved in wok stir-frying. This indicates me either an insufficiently seasoned wok, a flame that is not hot enough, or insufficient tossing of the wok to get enough partial combustion of the stir-frying oil. A workmanlike char kway teow, but not outstanding.
Just for kicks, we also ordered a dish of chicken rendang, apparently because everything else we had was not rich enough. Rendang is originally an ethnic Malay feast dish, although it can now be found in restaurants all over. True to the restaurant’s Malaysian Chinese roots, the version we got was a Peranakan Chinese-style rendang. The Peranakan Chinese (also known as Baba-Nyonya or Straits Chinese) are a community within Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore descended from Chinese immigrants in the 15th to 16th centuries, with a distinct language, culture, dress, and cuisine drawn from the centuries of cross-cultural pollination in the region. Peranakan Chinese food fuses Chinese, Malay, and Indian influences into something distinct, commonly referred to as Nyonya cuisine, after the term for women of the community.
Rendang is a meat stew, cooked over a long simmer in rempah (a Malaysian spice mixture), turmeric, chili sauce, coconut milk, and kerisik, a paste made from toasted coconut shavings. The resulting sauce is a thickly-textured and flavourful mixture having been reduced from over an hour of cooking. The rendang at Hometown Bak Kutteh is sweet and only slightly piquant with rich aromas of ginger and lemongrass. It only lacked the additional complexity in flavour provided by turmeric leaves and kaffir lime leaves found in some Malay preparations, but was all in all a very satisfactory rendang in the style.
I totally enjoyed my experience at Hometown Bak Kutteh and am definitely heading back to try some of the other dishes. My favorite was their signature dish, Bak Kut Teh. It reminded me of thit kho heo but I could have done without the intestine’s floating in the broth. Also, it also had a whole garlic bulb in it!
All in all, some fantastically tasty and cheap (nothing over $5.00) dishes coupled with an authentic dining experience that I highly recommend. Just do it soon as they are moving to a more upscale location near Sorya Shopping Center on October 1st, 2011.
As of October 22nd, it hasn’t moved.
It’s moved and now on Street 154
Hometown Bak Kutteh
Between Streets 51 and 63
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
012 611 575