“Go for great Malaysian fare, including Alice’s famous kuih (sweets).“
– an exhortation from SMH Good Food Under $30, bible of Sydney’s frugal food lovers
5 Top Places for Sweets in the City: Part 2
The topic of fixation? Coconutty green treats.
The establishment? Alice’s Makan, winner of the “Best Bang for Buck” award in the 2011 TimeOut Sydney Food Awards. “Makan” is the Malay word for eat or food.
This longstanding family-owned Malaysian eatery recently relocated to a zippy stall tucked in the HSBC Centre food court, with connecting escalators to Sydney’s Town Hall train station.
Hooray for family businesses, hooray for moves to central locations! (Alice’s Makan used to be in Thornleigh, a considerable 30 km northwest of the Sydney CBD.)
Husband-and-wife team Paul and Alice Tan were responsible for injecting a splash of Malaysian spices into Sydney’s northwest. When I went to their Thornleigh eatery 10 years ago, the restaurant already looked lived-in; that shows how long these guys have been in the game.
Alice hails from Klang, the Malaysian town famous for bak kut teh (pork rib herbal soup, pictured below), where she mastered cookery in her mother’s kitchen.
As for Paul, he started cooking for his family of 10 siblings at an age before kids nowadays are even allowed to pour boiling water. No Cordon Bleu course can beat that training! We all know that siblings are merciless and won’t mince their words if the cooking isn’t up to scratch.
Green custard. Green noodles. Green cake. Green gels. That colour is such an integral part of Singaporean and Malaysian desserts that I’ve never batted an eyelid at eating sweet green things.
What did surprise me was when a golden-haired pal exclaimed, “You’re not serious about eating that cake? It’s green…” As if there was anything odd or objectionable about it. That was before pistachio gelato became ubiquitous.
Visiting Alice’s Makan
Alice was kind enough to tear herself away from hundreds of satays (big catering event that evening) to shake out her hair for a photo and an interview.
Do you Instagram? My daughter taught me how – see. [Flashes smart phone with a close-up food pic.] My daughter is also writes a food blog. [Names a wildly popular Sydney food blog.]
Immediately that blogger’s culinary authenticity skyrockets in my eyes. With a mum who is part of the Alice’s Makan team, that blogger must’ve been brought up inhaling culinary expertise.
Serimuka is Southeast Asia’s rejoinder to the Western lemon curd on bread.
White bottom = Coconut-scented sticky rice. Alice’s hint of salt works a charm with the coconut milk. Move over, salted caramel macaron.
Sticky + Creamy + Sweet + Slightly Salty = Heaven
Did you know…
- Pandan/screwpine leaves are widely used in sweet and savoury items in Southeast Asia. For example, it is an essential ingredient in Hainanese chicken rice. Its fragrance is a cross between jasmine and vanilla.
- Pandan plants with long, strappy leaves grow like weeds in the tropics. Unfortunately, for Australians, unless you have a greenhouse or live in Darwin, don’t even try growing it.
Where to find pandan leaves
- $2 bundles of pandan leaves are available from Asian grocers in Flemington, Cabramatta and Sydney Markets.
- I cut excess leaves into manageable lengths and freeze in ziplock bags (better than using the dried version).
A shaved ice dessert featuring cendol (pandan flavoured green noodles), with that classic pairing of creamy coconut milk and gula melaka (coconut palm sugar – the brown liquid drenching the ice pictured below).
- Shaved ice is fine and not gritty.
- Gula melaka is caramelly and strong.
- Salt cuts the richness of coconut milk.
- Cendol noodles are slithery, have a bite and aren’t chalky.
Just for laughs
While writing for a local paper, I once described cendol as being “slug-shaped noodles”. The editor changed it to the more palatable “elongated noodles”.
Fair call. That’s what makes him the chief editor with a city office, while I’m the freelance writer with an “office” beside the kids’ bedroom.
Another shaved ice dessert. This one is drizzled with gula melaka (coconut palm sugar), rose syrup and evaporated milk.
Unlike cendol, ice kacang contains no coconut milk, but makes up for it by embedding more sweet morsels and textures.
Eat like a pro
- Scrape around the sides so you don’t end up with a collapsed mound on the table.
- Fossick for basil seeds (like frogs’ eggs), palm seeds (emerald green), azuki beans, jelly, mashed yellow beans and other sweet morsels.
In every food centre in Singapore stands at least one stall specialising in desserts like cendol and ice kacang. My kind of heaven.
Incidentally, the “A” to the right of the above picture was awarded to this hawker stall by Singapore’s Ministry of Health. It’s the highest rating, bestowed on this stall for excellence in cleanliness and food hygiene. Every hawker stall in Singapore is rated.
4. Pandan sponge cake
I have a weakness for pandan leaves and sponge cakes. Combine the two, add a dash of childhood sentimentality, and voilà! My all-time favourite cake is in the building.
A fake pandan sponge (highlighter-green, no coconut milk, dry) makes me reach for my revolver.
A traditional, well-made pandan sponge leaves me walking on air. Pandan cake from Alice’s Makan is the real McCoy.
“My pandan cake contains no artificial pandan essence,” Alice declares proudly. And it shows.
Hallmarks of excellence
Alice uses the time-honoured, painstaking method of shredding pandan leaves and squeezing them through muslin to extract the flavours.
This results in a light green, oh-so-ambrosial cake that is soft, moist with coconut milk, and leaves a fragrant aftertaste. No other sponge cake is like this.
Because it contains coconut milk, this cake won’t keep. When you buy it, banish all thoughts of delaying gratification. Eat now.
5. Kuih dadar – Alice’s personal favourite
Alice was hard-pressed to nominate her favourite kuih. “I like them all!” she proclaimed.
Then she thought harder, decided that she loves everything with coconut, and nominated….kuih dadar.
If your normal spring roll is Dr Bruce Banner, kuih dadar is the Incredible Hulk – it’s bulkier and greener.
Kuih dadar is a rolled up sweet green crepe flavoured with pandan and coconut, encasing a mixture of grated fresh coconut and gula melaka (coconut palm sugar). The soft, subtle crepe is a nice prelude to the sweet and slightly crunchy filling.
It’s the perfect choice for Alice the coconut lover: if coconut were the secret ingredient on an episode of the cult Japanese TV cooking comp Iron Chef, Alice the challenger would earn extra points for “doubling up on the ingredient”.
With delights like these, my mother never had any problems getting me to eat my greens!
If your tastes lean towards savoury items, Alice’s Makan also has a whole heap of authentic savoury Malaysian street food, like the prawn noodles (“har mee”) pictured below.
Sydney has many Malaysian eateries, but not many of them make kuih, because it is time-consuming and labour-intensive. Having Alice’s kuih in such an accessible spot is a boon.
On the other hand, it is relatively easy to buy kuih in Singapore – you can even get excellent ones from Bengawan Solo at Changi Airport. To my readers in Singapore: aren’t you glad that for once, you won’t be going green with envy when reading about food in Sydney?
This is an uncommissioned, independent review.
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