(THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - About 15 years ago, I read a book by The French Laundry’s Thomas Keller. While ostensibly a cookbook that featured 150 recipes from the famed Napa Valley restaurant in the United States, his intro explored themes that loomed so much wider as he wrote about doing small things, doing them often and well.
“Any job worth doing is worth doing well. But to be able to do that, you have to do it over and over again,” he said. “This is the great challenge: to maintain passion for the everyday routine and the endlessly repeated act, to derive deep gratification from the mundane.”
It is a philosophy for life, not just for the kitchen, and it has resonated through the years – long after I forgot the title of the book (it was The French Laundry Cookbook).
And it echoed in my head once again when I encountered the roast meats from the small kitchen of the also-small Boon Signature Roast Pork because that is exactly what Boon (Cheam Kar Mun, 33) does day after day – turning out perfectly glistening, crunchy-skinned siew yoke, juicy char siew and fragrant, succulent roast chicken, which are top of their class every single time.
Balancing on this pinnacle of roast perfection, they sit at the intersection of getting many small details right: the sourcing of the meat; experiments with marinade, cooking time and temperature; the peripheral pleasures of piquant chilli sauce made from scratch; and good quality rice.
It all started with siew yoke – Boon’s mother’s siew yoke, to be exact.
“From the time I was small, I knew my mother made her siew yoke a little different,” he said. There was no porky smell to the meat and Boon was so accustomed to it that he never ate store-bought ones.
Years later, he adapted her simple marinade – which included the customary five-spice powder – by adding herbs such as oregano and thyme, foreign to Oriental kitchen customs. The resulting meat would straddle the roast pork sensibilities of East and West.
“It took me a year to find a way to get the crackling right,” he said. “Other siew yoke is usually made by roasting once, scraping the top of the skin, and then roasting again. Ours is roasted only once.”
He opened a restaurant in Kota Damansara, but found the location was not ideal. He then closed it and returned to his home town of Ipoh for a year. When he came back to Kuala Lumpur, he sold roast meats at the pasar malam – till customers Lionel Lau and Bryan Yeow convinced him to open a restaurant again, the duo’s faith in his roasting prowess driving them to become co-owners.
The holder of a degree in chemical engineering, Boon’s approach to his craft is singularly scientific.
One of his siew yoke secrets is the scoring of the pork belly skin before roasting in the charcoal-fed Apollo oven – this allows some of the fat to render and flow out through the channels created, which makes the skin puff up and become extra crunchy.
It also means that if you take away a whole slab, no chopping is required – only slicing.
Boon uses local, chilled sakura pork, free of antibiotics and hormones, which gives him the fresh flavour and desired ratio of meat to fat.
It is not hard to find tasty siew yoke from various vendors. But what sets Boon’s apart is the fineness of his roast pork, the fact that not only is it tasty, but it is also very fresh-tasting, with subtle herb and spice nuances, an exceptionally crunchy crackling and a succulent tenderness to the meat.
The smallest portion of plain siew yoke or char siew is RM11 (S$3.50, for about 100g), the largest RM110 for 1kg. You can also opt for a slightly smaller portion of siew yoke, char siew or roast chicken served with Japanese pearl rice (RM8.90), springy wonton noodles (RM9.90) or wonton noodles with dry curry (RM9.90).
The roast meats can also be combined into double or triple threat offerings, with rice or noodles.
Enjoy everything with liberal lashings of the housemade chilli sauce, made with fresh chilli, garlic and ginger, and a generous squeeze of calamansi lime.
The char siew is sweet, as expected, but not cloyingly so and the ample fat melts on the tongue. It is bathed in maltose, rose and Chinese rice wines before being barbecued in the barrel-shaped oven.
The roast chicken (RM15 for a quarter chicken, RM55 for a whole) is the dark horse here, an underestimated dish that is also done very well – moist, well-flavoured meat, crisp skin. It has never met a fryer in its life – many shops selling Chinese roast chicken here actually finish the meat with a deep-frying dip – and it is topped with a ginger-and-spring onion puree for even more fragrance and flavour.
And if you want to luxe up your siew yoke experience, try the Iberico pork belly (RM25 for 100g) given the signature Boon treatment. It will be available as a special.
The Iberian pigs that provide this meat graze wild on mushrooms and acorns, the latter especially responsible for the nutty flavour of Iberico pork. So if you are going to fork out for this, you want to taste that natural sweet nuttiness of the meat and fat – which means char siew is out, since that honeyed marinade would overwhelm those flavours.
Boon’s Iberico siew yoke undergoes the same marinade treatment as his regular, but it is applied even more subtly.
Since the imported Iberico arrives sans skin, put crackling out of your mind. Instead, the generous marbling of fat chars slightly, giving it a texture reminiscent of char siew.
One bite into the thick cut of pork and its juices flood your mouth. It is a rich, decadent bite, and possibly the first of its kind here.
If you like something with instant comfort food appeal, the Japanese pearl rice is also served with braised minced pork and peanuts (RM6). There is something about this dish that makes it appeal to the heart as well as the taste buds: some sense of comfort in the fluffy, individual short grains with a distinctively moist, starchy bite, saucy, sweet-savoury pork and tender, squashy peanuts.
And so there you have it. Boon’s focus on the simple act of getting all the details of his offerings right sees him meeting Keller’s “great challenge” with every yield of his oven.
“The process of roasting siew yoke is involved, you have to constantly check it, make sure you’re getting time and temperature especially right,” said Boon.
The satisfaction of his customers at the first crunch of crackling is more than enough to justify his time and care.
Boon Signature Roast Pork
75, Ground Floor, Jalan SS 22/19, Damansara Jaya, Petaling Jaya, Selangor; tel: 03-7731-8169; open: 8.30am to 3.30pm (Tuesdays to Sundays)