Fó Tiào Qiáng: “Buddha Jumps Over the Wall”

31 Aug

Last weekend, Tom and I drove to Nilai to attend a going-away luncheon for one of his coworkers, a town that’s about an hour’s drive from KL (or 45 minutes, if you disregard the speed limit). So what would motivate people to spend two hours in a car on a lovely Saturday afternoon? Since this is Malaysia, the answer is something delicious: in this case, a dish called “Buddha Jumps Over the Wall,” so named because its aroma would tempt even the Buddha to break his vow of asceticism (and vegetarianism, as almost all of the ingredients come from animals).

Admittedly, it doesn’t look like much; it’s basically a collection of braised things in soup, which never looks all that impressive. However, BJOtW is crammed with all the ingredients that the Chinese consider luxurious: mysterious medicinal plants, wine, sea cucumber, scallops, and (most distressing to me) shark’s fin. It’s the Chinese equivalent of a foie-gras-and-truffle-topped Wagyu steak. Because many of the ingredients are dried, it needs to simmer for several hours, possibly overnight; the result is basically an umami-bomb. This was also my first encounter with shark’s fin, an ingredient I’ve avoided due to ethical concerns (basically, it’s like hunting buffalo solely for their pelts), but is still the sine qua non of luxury foodstuffs for many Chinese. (Now that I’ve had it, I don’t feel the need to repeat the experience at the expense of my conscience; it’s naturally flavorless, and in the soup, tasted like a mass of jelly.) On the whole, though, BJOtW didn’t taste as decadent as the name suggests, possibly because it’s almost fat-free.

Top row, right to left: abalone; the clever little individual soup pot; braised sea creature bits. Bottom row: giant prawns; delicious pork fat; more porky goodness in buns

The rest of the meal — all eight courses — was an exercise in gluttony. Rounding out the sea creatures, we had an abalone in some sort of oyster sauce, two other braised “seafood delight” dishes, and the biggest shrimp I’ve ever seen with some sort of spicy crispy topping. Plus we had the restaurant’s (silver) award-winning pao (pork-stuffed steamed buns), which I quite enjoyed but Tom felt were overshadowed by Tim Ho Wan‘s. The hit of the afternoon, though, was the pork belly cooked with red wine, which led to a lively discussion of “good” fat versus “bad” fat. This was definitely “good” fat in the sense of fat cooked to a deliciously melting texture, not to be confused in any way with “good” in the health aspect.

The biggest surprise, though, was dessert. The menu just listed it as “Hashma in Soy Bean”; I should have looked more closely at the Chinese characters, because what I thought were pieces of lychee, or maybe agar, turned out to be…frog fat. Apparently this is an ingredient that even most Chinese aren’t familiar with. When one of our dining companions told us what the secret ingredient actually was, another (Chinese) diner exclaimed, “I thought that was just the herbal name!” It’s just not a Chinese feast if you don’t have at least one animal part you’d never expected to consume.

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