JOURNAL: The Mysterious Pie Tee (Top Hats) – A Special Delicacy of Nyonya Cuisine
Thursday, August 8, 2019
8:30 a.m. Room 4, Natalia Guest House
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Feeling good this morning. That’s a nice change. I went to bed early, and I got up at a regular time. I did wake up at 3 a.m., but I simply closed the windows to block out all the sound, drew the curtains, and then went back to sleep. I woke up at 8 a.m., just half an hour ago, and I feel truly rested for the first time in two weeks.
I’m not sure what I am going to do today. I might head back to Low Yat Plaza or to Camera Valley to buy a new lavalier microphone with a shorter cord. Or I might go to the National Art Gallery to see an exhibit of digital reproductions of the 17 most famous paintings by Leonardo da Vinci. We’ll see how I feel after I finish my morning coffee.
My second lunch with Li Jing (my subscriber from Penang – not her real name) at the Old China Cafe went well. As it turned out, this lunch was all about the Pie Tee (AKA the Top Hats). She had really wanted me to try them the first time we went there, but they were unavailable. This time, she went to the cafe the day before and asked them specifically if they would have any Pie Tee the next day. She spoke with the manager or the owner of the restaurant, in fact. And she was assured that Pie Tee would be on the menu, and she made a reservation for 11:30.
We met at 11 as we planned, and then we went to a restaurant called Ali, Muthu & Ah Hock Kopitiam to have a cup of coffee. We ended up having something called “cham”, which is half coffee and half tea. I had mine on ice, and she had a smaller hot cup. The kopitiam seemed nice. It was casual and had a pleasing decor.
As we chatted, I became more and more curious about the mysterious Pie Tee. I still didn’t really understand what they were. In particular, I didn’t know why they were so difficult to make and have at hand. But there was something about them, some ingredient, some part, that required advance planning and preparation. And when you run out of that something, you have no more Pie Tee.
At 11:30, we went to the Old China Cafe, which was completely empty except for us, and sat down at a nice table for four. We got a different waiter this time, and that made a big difference in terms of our experience. This waiter smiled and greeted us and made us feel welcome, and during our meal, he was quite attentive and anticipated our needs, such as bringing us a new glass of napkins when he noticed that our glass was empty. The waiter from our first visit was so low-energy, he could barely summon the strength to grunt at us.
Right from the start, however, it wasn’t looking good for Pie Tee. Li Jing ordered them, but the waiter said that they were unavailable. Li Jing was having none of this, and she started to ask some questions. She explained that our entire purpose in coming to the Old China Cafe was to introduce her foreign friend – me – to Nyonya cuisine and to have me try Pie Tee in particular. She went on to explain that she had even come to the restaurant in person the day before to confirm with the owner that Pie Tee WOULD be available. The waiter, friendly as he was, didn’t really have much to say in response to this. There was no Pie Tee, and he couldn’t really wave a magic wand and produce any.
Still unsatisfied, Li Jing asked to speak to the owner/manager, to the woman that she had met the day before. This woman happened to walk past in the back of the restaurant right at that moment, and she was called over. She was quite friendly, though I have to say that she didn’t have any kind of answer as to why she gave assurances that there WOULD be Pie Tee and now there weren’t any. After much pressure, she said that, in fact, there were 2 Pie Tee, and she would give them to us free of charge. An order of Pie Tee normally came as a set of 6, so she could not bring us a full order. But she would bring us 2 so that I could finally try this special part of Nyonya food culture.
Once that was settled, we turned to the menu to choose items for our lunch. As on our first visit, I deferred to my guide. I had no idea what to order, and she was clearly an expert. She not only knew a lot about Nyonya cuisine, she had a passion for food, and an educated palate. She knew exactly what spices and flavors should be in each dish, and she could tell when even one was missing or had been added in the incorrect proportion. I could only look on in awe. I can only put food in my mouth and pronounce it tasty or not tasty, spicy or not spicy. That’s all I can do. She can tell you what spices or ingredients were in each dish and how much of each. I admire this passion for food. I see it in Chinese culture in general. But as a bit of a simpleton, I also can find it exhausting. I’m not sure how you can live your life and be that excited and concerned about food. It takes so much work, as you can only eat at certain restaurants known to make the best food. If a dish has exactly the wrong amount of a certain spice, it is dismissed as unworthy and you can never go back there again. And since as human beings, we have to eat several times a day, it’s a lot of work. You expend a lot of energy and brainpower thinking about food and talking about food and planning your day around food. At some point, you’d think you could stop worrying about food and talk about something else, but it is a consuming passion for a lot of people. Me, I can go an entire day without eating a single thing. And I can go two or three days in a row eating nothing but bowls of Corn Flakes. It’s just fuel for me, like putting gas in the car. You kind of need the right kind of gas. You can’t put diesel in the wrong tank. But beyond that, you just put in the pump and fill up the tank. That’s how I eat.
That being said, I can still enjoy a good meal, especially when I have an expert guide. I just couldn’t do it every day. And on this second visit to Old China Cafe, I very much had an expert guide, one, who through sheer force of will, had conjured up 2 Pie Tee (Top Hats) just for me.
The mystery of why they are called Top Hats and why they are always in limited supply was solved the moment the 2 Pie Tee showed up at our table. It turns out that Pie Tee consists of a crispy, thin, fried shell in the shape of a bell or a top hat. This shell is made with a combination of wheat, rice, and corn flour. This flour is made into a batter and then a special mold is dipped in the batter and then submerged in hot oil. I’m guessing this takes a skilled hand and exactly the right oil temperature and batter consistency.
I don’t fully understand the mechanics of all this, but it is clearly a labor-intensive process, and since the result is a thin and very breakable shell, it’s easy to understand how there might be a shortage of Pie Tee from time to time. You have to make them in advance. It takes a lot of work. And a lot of them might break. Plus, you can’t make them too far in advance because they will eventually become soggy or too crispy or something. They have to be made at exactly the right time so that they can be served when they are at peak pie tee condition.
I have no idea whether the two pie tee brought to our table were in peak condition or not. Li Jing was very concerned about that and asked me if they were too oily or too soft or too crunchy or something. I assured her as best as I could that they seemed to be just as a pie tee was supposed to be – perfect and with a satisfying crunchiness.
These shells or top hats can be served already filled with a variety of fillings and toppings. Or they can be served empty with all of the fillings served separately, and you make your own. The pie tee we got were empty with the fillings on a separate plate, and seeing the two pie tee shells sitting empty allowed me to understand instantly why they were so hard to make and so hard to come by.
Li Jing took charge of filling the pie tee shells with the various ingredients in the exact right proportions and order. I imagine if I had done it, she would have recoiled in horror as I put the wrong ingredient in first and also put in the wrong amount. I couldn’t even begin to tell you all the ingredients included in the filling, but I checked a couple of recipes online, and the ingredients were extensive and daunting: shredded jicama or yam beans; shredded carrot; chopped French beans; shrimp; garlic; salt; sugar; omelet; fried shallot crisps; scallions; red chillies. I imagine the recipes all include a different range of ingredients, but they all stress that making pie tee takes a long time. And they all offer reassurance that the effort is worth it because they taste so good and are such fun to eat.
I wish I could offer an educated analysis of my pie tee and pronounce them the best ever or perhaps missing the mark slightly because there were 25% less yam beans than there should have been and 15% too much red chillie. But I can’t offer any of that. I can just say that they struck me as very tasty. I crunched into them and ate them up with pleasure, and I can now add enjoying some delicious pie tee to my adventures in Malaysia.
The pie tee was actually just the beginning of this meal. For a meal that began at 11:30 in the morning (a time when my body hasn’t even begun to even start thinking about the possibility of pondering the chance of developing an appetite), it was quite elaborate. It was even more elaborate when you consider that Li Jing had to catch a 1:30 train back to Penang, and she was constantly checking her watch and asking me to check mine so that we finish our meal on time to get to the train station. In the end, things worked out very well. We had a great meal and we got to the train station in plenty of time. But we did have to work a little to get through all the food we ordered.
In addition to the finger-food pie tee, we had ordered a special dish called ju hu char – another item from the appetizer section of the menu. This consisted of another large range of spicy ingredients and sauces to be placed by hand on a piece of flat or crinkly lettuce, wrapped up, and then popped into your mouth. Li Jing also took this dish under her command and made a few for me with, I assume, just the right amount of each ingredient and spicy sauce. The funny thing is that when you make these, they are a tight ball of lettuce threatening to explode at any second. You have to keep your fingers in the exact right position to hold it closed as you eat it or pass it on to a second person. And the second person – me – has to carefully put their fingers in the same position and hold it tight or the thing will explode open and create a mess all over the table and your lap. It was like handing over a live hand grenade.
Also appearing on our heavily laden table was a large dish of Nyonya rendang chicken. This consisted of four or five very large and meaty pieces of chicken soaking in a delicious thick sauce. And on top of all that, we got a large plate of one of my favorite foods – eggplant. This dish was called brinjal belecan. This is the dish that I suggested on our first visit to the Old China Cafe, but Li Jing, the food expert, advised me that combining the wet and sauce-heavy brinjal belecan with the equally saucy and wet babi pong teh (a pork dish) was not a good idea. However, she pronounced that it would be good an acceptable dish to accompany the Nyonya rendang chicken.
A lot of food appeared on our table in a very short time, and I kept my jaws happily chewing away to make sure we got through it at a pleasurable pace but still with enough time to make that 1:30 train. To be honest, I was quite surprised that this restaurant managed to make and serve all these dishes in such a short amount of time. There was very little waiting between our placing the orders and having the food show up at our table. It was a very good meal, and as I told my subscriber from Penang, I would not have to eat for several days now. I was joking, but only slightly. A meal like that could power my body for a long time, and though I would probably snack a little bit here and there, I wouldn’t feel the urge to have another such full meal for several days.
I accompanied Li Jing to KL Sentral and saw her off on her 1:30 train. I believe it began boarding at about 1:15. We gave each other a nice, strong hug, and said goodbye. I forgot to mention that she brought me a second bag of PappaRich 3-in-1 coffee packets, so I am all set for coffee for a while.
The rest of the day was largely lost to fiddling on my computer and with my camera gear. I had plans to go to Low Yat Plaza in the afternoon to buy a new microphone, but I was so tired that I decided to postpone that trip. I will probably do that this afternoon. Or I will go to Camera Valley. I haven’t decided where to go yet.