Soo Kee is an old school restaurant located at Jalan Imbi which is one street behind the hotels Ritz Carlton, Marriot and Westin stretch in Bukit Bintang Kuala Lumpur. It is an institution and icon for good Chinese stir fry cooking or “Tai Chow” ie literally translated “ Big Fry”.
You would have seen these sort of Chinese wok cooking in Singapore and Malaysia – an old school cast iron wok sitting on top of an enormous flame which is angrily escaping from the sides of the wok. This is the art of Chinese cooking which produces “ Wok Hei” which, loosely translated, means “the breath of the Wok “. It is because of the big fire and the skill of the Chef who continually tosses the food in the wok during cooking over the intense heat, that ensures the dish is not soggy or overcooked, but flash fried leaving it delectably fresh, and which evokes an intense wok- enhanced charred flavour.
The original location of Soo Kee was not at Jalan Imbi but somewhere else in the middle of town. It’s location and landmark was that it was under a big tree in that location and when they moved to Jalan Imbi many years ago, their signboard in Chinese up to today literally translates to “under the big tree Soo Kee”.
Directly opposite Soo Kee is a restaurant with a largely similar (right down to the shade of green) signboard which reads
“Soo Kee’s Son (Meng Chuan) Prawn & Beef Noodles”
So legend has it that Soo Kee is the Father and the present Soo Kee is run by his two daughters. The shop opposite was opened by their brother (as the sign board makes clear ) and there may be some family feud between the Sisters and the Brother.
Malaysians are divided between the two restaurants as the dishes offered in the two restaurants are eerily similar. One of the dishes commonly compared is their Beef Hor Fun which is essentially white flat noodles flash fried with the softest beef slices drowned in an absolutely delicious brown gravy which is enriched with egg yolks stirred through the gravy.
Today promised to be a surreal experience for me.
I have been to Soo Kee many times before and always struggled to order in the Cantonese language which is the dialect predominantly spoken by the Chinese in Malaysia.
A dreary chilly drizzle greeted me as I left the hotel past 8pm after a session at the gym. I braved the drizzle and a short brisk walk later, I arrived at Soo Kee.
In my previous visit, I had braved life and limb attempting communications with the lady Chef who was at the cooking station. She was gruff and grumpy then and had barked at me when I tried desperately to communicate in halting Cantonese.
Perhaps when you were cooking with a big fireball and timing was key, the last thing you would want was a big ugly oversized ape trying to talk to you and seemingly undecided (an impression created by the halting Cantonese) about what he wants. It didn’t help that he looked sub normal and like he desperately wanted a banana.
This time round, I ordered from her sister who was manning the tables inside the shop.
After my meal, I came out to the cooking station to look for the Sister who took my order in order to make payment, as I couldn’t find her inside the shop. As I was looking around for her, I suddenly heard someone next to me say in completely perfect English “I like your shoes”. I turned around and to my utter shock it was the Chef Sister sitting at one of the tables, having a breather.
I was gaping stunned in silence and she continued “most men dont wear orange shoes”.
Then she gestured to her sister who was walking towards us “ We were in London last winter and my sister bought a burgundy coat while I bought orange “
I did a goldfish motion nodding stupidly.
“ You know how dreary and depressing winter can be in London so we decided to have some Colour “.
“U huh” I nodded.
Wow so much for Mr charming and articulate and business development maestro.
“Where are you from ?”
“Singapore “ I muttered.
“Ah I thought so”.
I had entered surreal territory.
I was flummoxed and star struck.
It was not everyday that you had a conversation in English with a famous Malaysian hawker Chef about orange shoes and winter in London.
When I returned to my hotel, I googled for articles about Soo Kee and the two sisters, and discovered that Chef Sister is Jessica Hon, who was educated in London. Her sister, the manager is Jasmine Hon.
As I stumbled out of Soo Kee still in shock, I decided that providence has spoken, this was the day that I had to do the taste test. One of my colleagues who was in the Meng Chuan camp had raved about the Beef Hor Fun at Meng Chuan. I had just enjoyed that dish at Soo Kee. I entered Meng Chuan and ordered the same.
The smoky, moist, delectable flavours of the Beef Hor Fun at Soo Kee cooked by the London trotting now-my-best-bud Jessica was still lingering in my mouth. I had drained every drop of the delicious gravy which was the piece de resistance. The beef was as smooth and soft as a baby’s bottom – the sensation was like an unbearable lightness of being moment. The odds were stacked very high for Meng Chuan.
When my order arrived, I spent some quiet moments with it, surveying it with a critical eye. To me, the visuals were important.
Meng chuan’s dish was attractive in a retro punk sort of way. It was dark, intense, funky. It was Madonna gyrating to “Like a Virgin” or Britney Spears belting out “Oops I did it again” with an albino snake eating her neck.
Soo Kee’s dish, however, was Audrey Hepburn. It was breakfast at Tiffany’s. Julie London singing “Fly me to the Moon”.
Meng Chuan’s beef was also soft and yielding. But there was a certain oddity to the taste. It took me a moment before the eureka moment struck – probably too much baking soda (thank you Wendy . Yes agree baking sofa makes no sense since this is a family not porn channel). There was a sort of alkaline taste which interferes with the essence of beef. I was certain that baking soda could also have been used by Soo Kee to get their beef that velvety but perhaps they got their proportions right.
And the Gravy? Too salty at Meng Chuan. I am guessing too much dark soy which I suspect explains the darker colour. And too little corn floor and egg. It didn’t have the glistening syrupy effect which Soo Kee achieved.
I didn’t drain the gravy and left behind the carbo so that this ape will not grow bigger.
So now I know. I am deeply in the Soo Kee camp. There will be more bantering of London weather in the future. I might even wear an orange coat the next time I visit in honour of my bud Jessica Rabbit.
Restoran Soo Kee,
14, Medan Imbi,55100 Kuala Lumpur,Malaysia
Contact: Telephone Number: 03 2148 1324 / 019 217 0248 / 012 392 3563
Opening hours: 12pm-3pm, 5pm-1am. Closed on Mondays