I stood there lost in thought at Bukit Bintang. I was divided about whether to board the metro to Pudu or to scrap the plan altogether. Twenty two hours earlier, I had tried to make the very same journey. My efforts had sloshed down the drainpipe because I had missed lunch time and the doors were shut. Today would be my second attempt.
The metro on the opposite side rattled up to the platform, drowning my thoughts out until it heaved to a stop.
But a part of me was tired, tired of walking about in lost tourist circles around an unknown city. Tired of clutching onto a DSLR boulder that needed to be guarded ever so closely on the pickpocket-powered metro lines.
The doors slid shut and the metro on the other side roared off, leaving me to my own mental turbulence.
Another part of me was nervous, afraid, because I had finally managed to pull up Robyn Eckhardt’s review on my blackberry. Her post warned that not one person at this legendary haunt spoke English. I would be the fumbling outsider who attracts all the wrong, mocking attention of every server. I’d be that ignoramus with outrageously sloppy sign language skills, made doubly pathetic because the place didn’t have any menus that could be pointed at. Regulars just knew what they wanted, and newcomers…well they be damned if they don’t speak Cantonese.
I could hear the rumble of the approaching train, screeching at me to make a decision.
And then the residual part of me, the stubborn one-third, stuck its fingers in its ears to mute out the other two rational parts of my brain. It cackled mockingly at me for even considering the thought of turning back from a place that Robyn Eckhardt, one of the most famous food writers of Asia, had commanded me to visit. If I boarded the metro back to my hotel, I’d officially be the sorriest excuse of a food explorer that had ever made her way to Kuala Lumpur.
The doors slid open with a questioning look, are you in, or are you out?
That final one-third convinced me. Ego usually trumps all else. I was going, even if I had to crawl in on all fatigued fours and get thrown a plate of unrecognizable creepy crawlies because my sign language had inadvertently translated into an order of squishy wanton worms. I left reason at the platform and bravely boarded the metro to Pudu, the home of one the oldest, and most renowned Chinese restaurants in Kuala Lumpur, Sek Yuen.
Sek Yuen had planted itself in Pudu, Kuala Lumpur, a few years after World War II. The informal canteen-style shack was their first outpost, before they unveiled an air-conditioned, tablecloth-lined dining room in the adjacent building. What’s remarkable is that, according to a local blogger Vkeong, their kitchen still labours on wood fire, decades behind the convenience of gas and electric burners.
Generations of chefs and the art of delicate and thoughtful manual cooking techniques lay preserved in black and white photographs framed on the walls. This place had a past, it had heritage, it even had its own memories. The air in the old shack traced my heart with the eerie, mysterious fingers of history that often reach out to me when I visit a monument.
If there were concerns about how I would communicate with the servers and whether they would mock me and discriminate against me and shovel the creepiest of crawlies into my food, they all vanished when one of the wiry thin servers flashed a smile at me. That gesture of warmth unleashed a new sense of hope in me, and I toiled enthusiastically to communicate my order. There were questions in English, answers in Cantonese mixed with broken English, air-drawn gestures of soup and stir-fry, and last minute attempts to extract Cantonese words from Google on my phone. A flurry of words and gestures later, I believe we had settled on the ginger chicken.
The chicken arrived on a raised, stainless steel plate, with a stainless steel bowl of rice and an empty orange plastic bowl where I could mix the two. When I left the restaurant, the steel plate that once held the ginger chicken was spanking clean. My message out to the world of social media read: Sek Yuen: Mindblowing is an understatement.
My entire meal went by feeling completely intoxicated by the most exquisitely fragrant ginger chicken I had ever tasted in my life. And also, terribly anxious that what I was eating was not really chicken all. This was potentially a meat that I was religiously forbidden to eat, pork. Chicken just didn’t have the potential to taste this good.
Chicken also never looked like that before. My stainless steel plate bore plump tender knuckles of meat, covered in a slippery skin that closely resembled oxtail. Every bone bore a thick swab of juicy pink meat, the kind that looked suspiciously similar to the roast pork dishes I’ve seen over a lifetime of abstinence. My attempts at confirming and re-confirming with the servers just couldn’t reassure me. After all, how would you communicate chicken over sign language without making a complete and utter fool of yourself in public?
It was nerve-wracking, but I couldn’t stop myself. My chopsticks were locked into a hypnotic trance, completely undone by a silky ginger sauce which was so incredibly fresh that every time I tasted it, I felt like I was tasting spring again. The culinary hands behind this dish were using the sauce to lure me into a sensory farm with the choicest of ginger, the most vibrant sprigs of cilantro, and an occasional crunchy bamboo shoot. This dish wasn’t just a meal, it was a journey back into time where vegetables may have looked less polished and homogenous, yet captured the taste of nature that feels elusive today.
I rarely touch the rice that accompanies any dish. I usually favour the bread basket. And if there’s no bread, I’ll still skip the rice. But at Sek Yuen, I realized that the hot grains would be my only hope of wiping up every last drop of the hazelnut-hued pool of ginger sauce that had accumulated at the bottom of the plate. And I obliged, mesmerized with a sauce that was making me eat rice and potentially, if that chicken turned out to not be chicken after all, condemning me to my own religious hell.
I left Sek Yuen completely overwhelmed by an experience that I had nearly walked away from just a few hours earlier. As the metro screeched to a halt at the platform, my feet mechanically stepped forward towards the sliding doors. But my senses were still lingering in a shack a mile away, where I had just discovered one of the most incredible Chinese meals of my life.
[It was only after I saw a photograph of the same exact dish on a flickr album covering Sek Yuen yesterday, that I can confirm, months after the fact, that the dish was indeed chicken.]
Restoran Sek Yuen
315 Jalan Pudu,
Pudu, 55100 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Phone: +(606) 3 9222-0903, +(606) 3 9222-9457