Customers at North Melbourne’s Gai Wong restaurant might assume that the signature dish is Hainanese chicken rice, and they would be right. But hor fun, the soupy noodle dish, better reflects its Malaysian owners, Philip Leong and Shirley Chow, combined history and sense of home.
It starts with Shirley whose family tradition was eating hor fun in restaurants for Sunday breakfast in the Malaysian city of Petaling Jaya. “Both my parents worked. My mum was a teacher and my dad had his own business, which meant he worked Monday to Friday and then half day on Saturday. Sunday was the only time we could meet as a family. My dad would drag us out of bed to hike up a hill in the neighbourhood. And then to reward us for one hour of walking, we’d go have hor fun in a restaurant nearby.”
This is when the family could converse and catch up with each other with ease. “My parents would ask about my day, about school. They’d want to know if I was struggling with anything. Later, they’d also ask if I had a boyfriend, and if yes, to make sure I introduce him to them. I didn’t realise it then, but they were very forward-thinking and open. They just wanted to know what we were up to.”
This tradition continued after Shirley met Philip and he, too, became embedded in their hike-and-eat hor fun tradition. This was fortuitous because when Shirley missed eating hor fun when she moved to Australia in 2008, Philip tried to replicate the dish from memory with Shirley as the taste tester. There was no dog-eared family recipe to guide him, so he relied on his experience of being a chef in fine-dining restaurants.
"My dad would drag us out of bed to hike up a hill in the neighbourhood. And then to reward us for one hour of walking, we’d go have hor fun in a restaurant nearby.”
“Hor fun is a marriage between the land and the sea. The soup is made with chicken stock but infused with prawn shells. That’s what gives it the seafood taste. And we eat it with the flat, rice noodles. I took one-and-a-half years to perfect it to Shirley’s standard,” he says with pride. (Shirley disputes this. “Actually, it took about two years,” she says.)
Philip is no stranger to cooking, experimenting and trash talking. As a Malaysian who grew up in Brunei, he recalls how his parents were skilled home cooks. “Both my parents could make chicken rice and they would squabble about whose version was better. My dad’s version was the Cantonese-style steamed chicken with soy sauce. My mum’s version is the ‘classic’ version with boiled chicken, chilli garlic sauce and spring onion.”
He also has strong memories of his grandmother, who was the matriarch of the family and a colourful character. “She would walk around the house with a sarong, with her hair in a bun. Occasionally, she’d pull out a 100-dollar note from her bun that she forgot was there. This was her mahjong winnings, but she had no pockets in her sarong to put it in and she did not want to stuff it in her bra. So it went into her bun for safekeeping.”
"Occasionally, she’d pull out a 100 dollar note from her bun that she forgot was there. This was her mahjong winnings."
Shirley and Philip note that their restaurant and its menu is a combination of both their upbringings. “Our mothers were different,” Shirley points out. “Philip’s mum was a homemaker while mine was a career woman. My mum cannot cook to save her life and she did not have much patience or time in the kitchen either. Still, she made sure that when we ate out, the food was healthy and nourishing. She had one signature dish, chai boey (mustard greens soup with pork) which is on our menu at Gai Wong. This is our tribute to her.”
- 4 pieces chicken carcass, bones
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil, for frying
- ½ brown onion, quartered
- 6 whole white peppercorns
- 1 piece chicken breast fillet, skin off
- 100 ml cooking oil, for the prawn oil
- 350 g fresh prawns, shells on
- 1 kg fresh flat rice noodles
- 20 g rock sugar
- 150 g garlic chives, washed and cut into 4 cm pieces
- Salt to taste
- Wash chicken carcasses under cold running water to remove any excess fat. In a big pot over high heat, add enough water cover all 4 chicken carcasses. Once the water is boiling, add the chicken carcasses and keep the water boiling for 15 minutes. Drain the carcasses and wash under running water again to remove the scum. Set aside.
- To make the master stock, add 2 tbsp vegetable oil to a stock pot on low heat. Once the oil is slightly hot, add the onion and whole peppercorns and lightly fry until the mixture is aromatic.
- Add 2 litres of water to the pot and bring to the boil. Add in the clean chicken carcasses and chicken breast fillet. Bring the pot to boil and then turn it down to a simmer for about 1 hour.
- Meanwhile, prepare the prawn oil. Peel the prawn shells and keep the prawn heads for flavour. Leave the prawn meat aside.
- In a saucepan over high heat, add 100 ml cooking oil. Once the oil is hot, lower the heat to medium and add prawn shells to the pan. Cook the prawn shells until it they're bright red and crispy and then strain the oil with a fine strainer. Set aside the strained oil and prawn heads.
- Once the master stock is ready, take out the chicken breast and shred by hand. Add the fried prawn shells to the master stock and simmer for another 30 minutes. Strain all the stock into another pot, add rock sugar and salt, to taste.
- Bring the strained soup to boil again and cook the peeled prawns in it. Once the prawns are cooked, set it aside, along with the shredded chicken breast meat.
- To cook the fresh hor fun noodles, boil water in a kettle. Place a colander into a big bowl, put the noodles in the colander and pour the boiling water over the hor fun noodles. Gently stir the noodles in the colander with chopsticks until slightly translucent. Strain the noodles and set aside.
- Combine the noodles, shredded chicken breast meat, prawns and chives in a bowl. Pour in the hot stock and drizzle the hor fun with prawn oil to finish.
This recipe was given to Jacob Leung by his mother, who adds curry leaves, kecap manis and fried garlic for a distinctly Malay touch.
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