We have always believed that restaurants intent on describing their food as “fusion” must have undergone some kind of identity crisis during early incarnation or subsequent makeover. More often than not, this generic term is used to describe an Asian style, perhaps in a misguided attempt to be mystical.
Well, Asia happens to be a vast continent of widely different traditions and cultures so to devise a way to encompass cuisines from copious countries and regions should defy categorisation. One Brother Rue (who shall remain nameless) recalls a local country pub in Sussex, England, that fell into the “fusion” trap when it added a sushi bar as an afterthought a few months after opening a Thai restaurant. Faux fusion if ever there was.
So, we were delighted to be left in no doubt about the authenticity of Hwang, a gem of a restaurant at the InterContinental Doha The City. Anna Derygo, the hotel’s lively and loquacious director of food & beverage, told us that the cozy space was originally earmarked as a Lebanese outlet, which, of course, can be found in abundance throughout the capital.
An altogether different dining experience emerged in May 2014 and, in this instance, fortune definitely favoured the brave. Anna is an expert advocate of pan-Asian cuisine whose vision of a family-sharing restaurant with a keen appreciation of “street food” prepared with passion is rapidly reaping its rewards.
She described chef Mohammed Ambrim Mahat as “a wok specialist” who had personally prepared our spread for the evening, much of which can be discovered on the popular “Yum Cha” Friday brunch menu or among the everyday à la carte offerings.
In our line of unpaid work there are a few perks. One is that we get to grill the chef under medium flame by asking pertinent probing questions. A few react as if they had never conversed with a customer before and scamper back to the sanctuary of the kitchen. Several years ago one chef actually said he had left something in the oven and was never to be seen again.
No such reticence from Mohammed, a proud Malay, who made more appearances in one evening than a would-be US president during an election year. After watching his mother and grandmother cooking from the age of six, he became fascinated with the art and, at 15, he told his family he wanted to be a chef. Much consternation ensued but, happily, he remained resolute.
As far as we were concerned, if he had chosen to be a gardener he would have green fingers.
Mohammed took us through the origins of Baba Nyonya (or Peranakan) communities that can be traced back centuries when the Chinese emigrated to the British Straits Settlements of Melaka, Singapore, Penang and Java.
“If you don’t understand culture you don’t understand anything about the food – there is always a reason for the ingredients,” were words of wisdom that echoed throughout our regular encounters. “There is no food you can invent. It’s the way you use it,” was another refrain of eminent erudition. He even alluded to the wildly inventive British chef Heston Blumenthal to emphasise his point. We insisted we could manage the evening without white chocolate with caviar or crab ice cream.
A perfect pairing of soups arrived first. Oxtail (Ekor) was becoming unfashionable in Europe when we were both in short trousers but luckily it never lost its allure in Asia. The meat (on the bone) had simmered for six hours with cloves, star anise, cumin, coriander, fennel, turmeric and cinnamon to provide a broth brimming with flavour. Superb. The traditional Tom Yang Kung, or hot and sour soup with shrimp, is a more subtle dish to savour.
There was no rush (as always) but anticipation for appetisers had been heightened. Crispy prawns with Wasabi mayonnaise were declared deliciously “gooey” by one Brother Rue who had forgotten his thesaurus.
The Thai fish cakes (King Fish) resonated as well, due in no small part to the addition of kaffir lime leaves and chilli. At this point, it is worth noting that Mohammed uses only light corn oil in his wok-fried or deep-fried recipes. Completing the trinity was excellent chicken and beef satay with sesame peanut sauce.
Angel, our delightful server with a perpetual smile, also found space on the table for a most refreshing shredded green mango salad with dried shrimp and toasted coconut in advance of the main fayre.
From the wok came the Kung Pao chicken, deliciously smokey with dried chilli, Kam Heong prawn with chilli and an admirable homemade black bean sauce, followed by crispy fried duck with long green beans and Thai basil. The duck breast, doused delicately with five-spice, was cooked medium rare, which in itself is a rare occurrence these days when the tendency is to incinerate duck beyond recognition.
Mohammed may be a wok specialist but he also takes pride in baking with charcoal (imported from Malaysia, no less). Ayam Perchik is Malay barbecued spicy chicken marinated in coconut. Boiled first, it is then baked briefly over high heat to provide a tantalising texture.
Beef Redang should be familiar to most Asian food afficionados. A national food of Indonesia, it has been adopted and adapted by most chefs on the continent and never ceases to surprise. How can it when lemon grass, galangal, ginger, garlic, toasted fennel and cumin seeds, coconut milk and toasted coconut produce an aroma that could be bottled as perfume?
By now, every time Mohammed sauntered back to the kitchen we were wondering what would follow on his return. Perhaps he’s gone to lie down, suggested one Brother Rue. But no. As an extra indulgence, a plate of Adobo appeared. It is a coveted speciality from the Philippines comprising spicy beef prepared in Chinese black vinegar and served with delightful strips of shitake mushroom.
Asian cuisine is all-embracing so we were asked to sample something steamed and it had to be fish. The Thai sea bass had maintained the freshness of the sea despite the addition of lime, garlic and chilli, which conspired to ensure a flavour that was far from fulsome. And the evening extravaganza would not have been complete without Nasi Goreng, a fried rice staple (with chicken) of Malay and Indonesian cooking.
Now, Mohammed had been most kind with his time and we certainly did not expect to eat his lunch as well. But we did. It was Australian beef tenderloin (his favoured cut) with lemon grass, galangal and lime. It was as irresistible as the wide grin that could not contain his contentment.
For dessert, Sago Gula Melaka (tapioca, palm sugar and coconut juice) was accompanied by an excellent Fruit Anmitsu bursting with blackcurrant, strawberry and homemade Japanese Yuzu jelly. Once devoured, Mohammed mischievously revealed that we had just finished a banquet he would normally prepare for a table of eight.
One Brother Rue said he just needed to clear up the fusion confusion, to which the exasperated other Brother remarked: “We don’t want philosophical debate now.” As Anna had rightly said earlier: “That’s not on the menu!”
© Marhaba Information Guide 2016. The Rue Brothers review restaurants exclusively for Marhaba. They have spent a combined 40+ years in Qatar and think they know their onions, and kofta kebabs, by now
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