Chinatown

Chocha Foodstore: 2020 Menu

Chocha Foodstore’s new menu is a monumental journey that can be experienced through contrasting routes. It might take you from the Straits of Malacca to the streams of Pahang. It can be tracked across small, self-reliant farms where chickens flock near Broga, where cacao trees bear their crinkly fruits in Raub. Its roots are Malaysian, its heart is fiercely for local purveyors and produce, but its ringleaders recognise that borders should not be boundaries for a kitchen’s spiritual inspirations.

Fins. Fowl. Ferns. Fruits. As Chocha chooses the road less travelled by for commercially lucrative restaurants, making all the difference for its customers, here are four approaches to take, from paths diverged under the yellow glow of Chocha’s lights.

FINS
Chocha Foodstore’s co-founder Shin Chang knows what tending a farm is like. His father ran one, cultivating durians and rearing tilapia in Negeri Sembilan’s small town of Simpang Pertang. He understands how the modern supply chain exploits petty farmers, leaving them a pittance for their labour, reserving lopsided profits for wholesalers.

Shin takes a passionate stand for his convictions with Chocha’s latest menu, launched this past month: No imported ingredients, a sharper focus on the bounty of our land and waters – which not only means that Aussie beef and NZ lamb continue to be conspicuously absent from Chocha’s menu, you’ll also see clearer representations of what it means to eat local.

So – no Norwegian salmon, no Japanese amberjack. What beckons instead is a deep dive into Malaysia’s sea off the peninsula’s west coast and its rivers in the rural heartland, fresh and wild catch that needs no flight to reach the restaurant.

If you’re dining with a sole companion, ordering all the fish is our recommended introduction to Chocha’s culinary rewards. The bait: Each course features a different fish, a different preparation, a different dynamic – different strokes for different folks.

New head chef Mui Kai Quan is the man to thank for these creations (more on him later). Typically, he relies on jenahak for his cured fish, but true to the capricious nature of Neptune, the nets won’t always return to the docks with those snappers. When we visited, Mui used gerut emas – long head grunts – as their substitute, cured with sugar, salt, Szechuan peppercorns, fennel, cumin and coriander seeds to balance out the brininess of the fish, firm-fleshed and sumptuously smooth. An emerald-hued, jalapeno-sharpened vinaigrette of kedondong fruit supplies zing and zest, with fig leaf foam for a faint floral fragrance (RM32).

Tenggiri might be a modest mackerel, the quintessential fish in many Malaysian households, but Mui makes it feel subversively transmuted by moulding it into a smoked, sultry pate, anchored by the unmistakably tide-bound flavour of tenggiri but buoyed by the lighter, airier creaminess of a pate, Thin, brittle eggplant chips bring this to shore with crackerjack earthiness (RM22).

From Spanish mackerel – tenggiri – to Indian mackerel – kembong, which Mui ordinarily deep-fries whole, two on a plate. For our meal, Mui introduced us instead to kembong‘s close cousin, the island mackerel, known locally as ikan mabong, slightly larger and thicker than kembong, which was unavailable that evening. Gently breaded, it’s crunchy enough that its fins and tail can be eaten easily, with flesh that’s flaky and not overbearingly oily. Budu mayo helps double the dose of savoury salinity, its foundation of fermented anchovies turning a balmy sea breeze into a typhoon of tastiness with fish-on-fish action (RM28).

After spending the past four years on Johor Bahru’s seafront and working with saltwater fare, Mui was apprehensive about tackling ikan patin, a river fish notorious for malodorous muddiness. But sometimes, our greatest triumphs are born out of our greatest fears – this pan-fried fillet turned out to be our favourite Chocha dish. 

The fish is of the prized patin buah variety, which feeds on fruits adrift in the river; this uncaged silver catfish can be four times costlier than farmed, pellet-fed breeds, but it’s a true treasure – moist but not mushy, full-bodied in freshwater flavour yet free of foulness, decadently juicy within, crisp-skinned without. We’d happily have it even without its accompanying leafy wraps of daun kadok and daun asam belanda, though the mango sambal is a treat, simultaneously fiery and nectarously sweet (RM80).

FOWL
In the weeks since completely overhauling its menu, Chocha has lost customers. After retiring signature recipes like cincalok fried chicken and biang biang noodles, sales have slowed. It took special courage to purge the chicken, of which Chocha has sold tens of thousands of plates since 2016. But the restaurant is going all-in on a menu that pays homage to homegrown harvests – not for the sake of supporting a fashionable cause, burnishing its brand or being bigotedly nationalistic, but to make a genuine distinction in the lives of fishers and farmers, from whom Chocha purchases its food directly and pays a fair price.

One of those producers is a man named Fui Fui, whom Shin has known since boyhood, when Fui Fui rode a motorcycle transporting chickens to slaughter for home kitchens. Now in his late fifties, Fui Fui hauls his poultry these days in a lorry, but the 36-year-old Shin still relies on him for a consistent source of chicken. 

Instead of purchasing the popular leg and breast parts, Chocha secures less coveted cuts of chicken for its wing-to-toe eating philosophy, prompting the rise of the phoenix claws – visually striking chicken feet slicked with soy caramel and sesame seeds. All skin, tissues and tendons, packed with cartilage, collagen and calcium, these aren’t our dim sum joint’s braised fowl feet – they’re crusty to the bite, gluey to the chew, like a newfangled bar snack that nobody invented before (RM18). Deceptively simple-looking, it takes two to three minutes to manually pull out the bones one-by-one from each foot (for eight feet per plate), in between blanching, steaming and deep-frying.

Chicken bones form a rich-like-risotto stock for a gooey-but-not-soggy knoll of heirloom red rice – Borneo’s highland-nurtured beras sia, brought to the public by Langit Collective – mixed with mascarpone, spiked with sweet corn, and topped with tender chicken wing meat, also deboned, and crackly-textured fried chicken skin (RM56), Mui’s remake of chicken rice, reformed from the ground up, perfectly proportioned in protein to carbs. Sure, it might never be as broadly beloved as cincalok fried chicken, but some folks will still miss this when it leaves the menu someday.

Chocha’s marinated duck, cushioned with pickled mustard leaves (RM68), is meant to echo Chinese brined duck, but it may suffer from comparisons to Cantonese roast duck if patrons try to pick their preferred preparation. The meat is glazed with a tamarind sauce that’s relatively robust, akin to dunking duck in plum sauce, so it works best if you’re a fan of punchy, fruit-based flavours to bolster your meat (fun fact: the chicken bone stock strikes back here, bringing body to the tamarind sauce). 

FERNS
Kulai-born chef Mui has spent most of his life in Johor. Before 2020, his main time in the Klang Valley was when he studied culinary arts at Taylor’s University. He never liked KL and chose not to work here, moving temporarily to Europe, where he staged at The Ledbury, a two Michelin-starred restaurant in London, and spent a season at Oslo’s equally lauded Maaemo. In 2015, he returned to Johor, founding one of JB’s rare modern European restaurants, Sprout, which endured for over two years.

Shin and Mui connected through mutual contacts; their compatibility proved comprehensive, from their love of locality to their respect for Scandinavian sensibilities (Shin through exploring restaurants in Denmark, Mui via his professional experience in Norway). They planned to open a new venue, Ketawa, in KL this year, but the health upheaval scuttled that.

They’ve both taken long, winding roads to this point: Shin wasn’t supposed to be a restaurateur, having carved his career in architecture since graduating in Melbourne a dozen years ago. Mui, remarkably, is only 29, on the cusp of turning 30 this year, but showcases the culinary maturity of a middle-aged chef, blended with youthfully energised creativity.

A test of a venue like this is what springs from the soil. Chocha’s vegetarian efforts are eclectic – its version of ulam is more domesticated than forest-foraged, embracing leaves and edible flowers, from chard to pucuk paku, furnishing all the fibre you’d crave of a salad, its raw, herbaceous liveliness finding an umami-loaded counterpoint in a cincalok dressing and creamy jackfruit seed dip (RM32). Sample the flowers individually; each channels its own intriguing, not-just-for-rabbits characteristics.

Chocha promotes flower-to-root consumption for its meat-free offerings, but our two least-liked dishes from this range were fried – tempura banana blossoms, laced with lime juice and olive oil, served with sambal cream, seem to convey more batter than artichoke-like blossom (RM20), while the butter-and-thyme-baked yam is meticulously layered into a mille-feuille, but its separation post-frying is difficult to discern, tasting more on the whole like chunky fritters (RM18).

But even when we aren’t in lust with a recipe, Chocha reminds us – through its melons – that to appreciate the diversity of food, it’s worth challenging ourselves to acknowledge what part our personal prejudices and preconceptions play. 

As children, many of us abhorred some culinary vegetables like bitter melon but adored others like winter melon. For those who carry that contempt as adults, can the gourd find redemption when blanketed with citrusy pomelo pulps for a bittersweet entanglement (RM26)? And for those long comforted by winter melon in a Cantonese berries-with-dates soup, will we still love it when it’s less soft or soulful, sitting unpretty in a shallow broth of pickled shiitake mushrooms and Chinese celery oil (RM46)?

FRUITS
I grew up strolling under coconut trees on the beaches of Malacca, stepping past their fallen fruits while playing. Coconut husks littered my father’s household, their shredded, snow-white flesh finding its way into my food and their juice seeping into my drinks. At 44, my mind is still flung back nearly four decades at the sight of coconuts heaped by the street.

But we never baked coconut buns; they were best bought, stuffed with a precious core of desiccated coconut and gula Melaka. Chocha’s are unlike those but nostalgic nonetheless, crisp and oven-warm, delicately dusted with coconut flakes, plain inside, with a flavour boost from a fermented coconut oil dip (RM14). The oil, crafted similar to cold-pressed techniques, was inspired by a Sabahan member of the kitchen crew who uses coconut oil on his scalp to nourish his hair.

The fruits of this venue’s labour are hardly confined to food – pair the coconut buns as an appetiser with an aperitif of Kelapa (RM46), a Negroni-like coconut oil cocktail mingled with gin, banana flower vermouth and Bitter Bianco for a tropically aromatic duet that sings of the seaside. This heavenly cocktail comes from high above – specifically, Botak Liquor Bar upstairs.

Fruits also figure prominently in dessert – slivers of vivacious jackfruit are lined by a folksy custard of Sarawak glutinous rice (RM28), while lusciously honeyed, lightly roasted figs from Janda Baik and a naturally fragrant house-made fig leaf ice cream are coupled with the figs’ fellow Pahang progeny, chocolate mousse with a clear ring of Ning, Malaysia’s Chocolate Concierge, flanked on every side by slim shrapnel of cacao husk cookies (RM32).

If dining and drinking go hand-in-hand for you, Chocha is a choice destination. Other easy-sipping, slow-juiced cocktails to order include the mangosteen-manic Bunga Raya (with tuak and hibiscus kombucha), rambutan-raving Daun Kesum (with laksa leaves, black pepper, pisco, lemon and aquafaba) and Sarawak pineapple-pushing Daun Kari (with garden-plucked curry leaves, milk pisco and lemon); we’d be tickled pink to see ciku at Chocha too someday. Orange wine and numerous natural wines are also available, convivial consorts for the kitchen’s risk-taking repertoire.

Shin’s hopes of highlighting independent local produce extend beyond Chocha – he also curates the One Kind Market each weekend at REXKL, where farmers bring everything from flat beans to forest honey from their communities to you.

Chocha is one of nearly 250 restaurants in our online store for vouchers and subscriptions. Shop at eatdrinkkl.com/store

Many thanks to Chocha Foodstore for having us.

Chocha Foodstore
156, Jalan Petaling, 50000 Kuala Lumpur. Open Tues-Fri, 6pm-12pm; Sat-Sun, 12pm-12am. Tel: 03-2022-1100

This post first appeared on eatdrinkkl.com

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