Friday, December 28, 2012

Top 10 Dishes of 2012


A coupla weeks ago, Sharky (of Sharking for Chips and Drinks) e-mailed me about this post where he's approaching a few Melbourne bloggers to put together each of our Top 10 Dishes of 2012. 

I thought it was a fantastic idea. Never really thought of putting together a list like this, so I was kind of curious to know what my Top 10 dishes would turn out to be as well. Besides, it's always fun to collaborate and connect with fellow bloggers in the community =)

Just to clarify, this is list consists of my Top 10 favourite dishes to eat, and not what I think the Top 10 "best" dishes in Melbourne are (based on restaurant standards or whatever). It's more of a personal thing that basically showcases food that I was happily eating over and over again the past year, which I hope you'll appreciate too. Who knows, this Top 10 dishes thing might turn into an annual thing too... Eh? Eh...? 

Anyhoo, do expect a new post in the New Year where I'll be starting to take a slightly different approach to the way I blog on The Hungry Excavator, so stay tuned! I'm currently on holiday in my hometown of Kota Kinabalu but am very active on Instagram. Do add me (@winceeeeso we can stay connected! =)

Thanks again Sharky for thinking of me for this list. Definitely look forward to catching up with you sometime soon! Do check out the full post and see the Top 10 picks by the other awesome Melbourne food bloggers: here


"My life as a full-time studying/part-time working student the past 5 years has really shaped me to become particularly passionate about searching the Melbourne food scene for food that are affordable, delicious and more importantly, value for money

Being a Chinese-Malaysian (and hence my affinity towards Asian cuisines), it is evident to see how my list of Top 10 dishes really does reflect who I am and where I'm from."

- Winston aka "The Hungry Excavator"

In no particular order:

1) Roast duck - Pacific House Richmond

Blog post to come

2) Salmone Pizza - Kaprica

Full post: here

3) Hamachi Sashimi - Pabu Grill & Sake

Full post: here

4) Korean Fried Chicken - Gami Chicken & Beer

Full post: here

5) Chirashi Sushi - Ume Sushi House

Full post: here

6) Claypot Fish Head Curry - Kuala Lumpur Restaurant

Full post: here

7) Deep Fried Lamb Spare Ribs - Chinese Spicy & Barbie

Blog post to come

8) Spicy Deep Fried Quail - Mabrown

Blog post to come

 9) Spicy Cod Roe Butter Pasta - Horoki

Full post: here

10) Agedashi Tofu - Big Mama

Blog post to come

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Red Spice Road, CBD

Red Spice Road's interior cannot be beat...

Ahhh... Red Spice Road... Why are you so good to me?

Your food, your setting... Oh, how it gets me so...

I came here with some friends a while back after wanting to eat here for the longest time. The whole vibe of the place was just amazing from the moment we stepped in.

I absolutely love the design of this part of the restaurant. 

How the massive, red lantern was majestically situated in the centre of the room with ultra high ceilings, surrounded by the semi-circle tables, and acted as the backdrop to everyone's evening... Simply beautiful...

What I also love about the whole restaurant's layout is how generous they are with space and that it's split to several very distinct sections, almost with an entirely different theme and decor of their own. It's great.

These were the biggest communal table I've ever seen at a restaurant, which was actually quite nice to sit at...

No matter which part of the restaurant you find yourself sitting in, you're sure to be surrounded by people happily chatting away and having a good time.

Now, I completely apologise for not getting the full name and price of every dish. I, err... Thought I could just refer to the menu on their website anytime, but had no idea the menu had changed since. Sorry! 

School prawns

DELISH! Light, crisp and could taste the natural sweetness of the prawns. Very addictive!


Nicely fried and pink with great flavours. I really enjoyed that they served it on a BED of coriander and not just use it as a garnish, very refreshing... The dressing also cut out a lot of the sharpness of the fresh herb so it was actually really enjoyable to eat with the fried quails.

Twice Cooked Lamb Ribs with Chilli jam -- $17.00

ZOOOOMG these were the best!! Braised till soft then flash fried, moist yet super crunchy on the outside... Awesome! Best part was the chilli jam, which tasted more like sambal than sweet, sticky, spicy jam. Never knew sambal could go so well with lamb ribs. 

Damn good with a big bowl of white rice. Totally went nuts over these...

Pork Belly with Apple Slaw, Chilli Caramel and Black Vinegar -- $35.00

YUM! Again, crispy on the outside while being moist and tender on the inside. Just like the lamb ribs. What I loved most was the sauce. Almost nectary sweet but carried the pork as well as the bountifully fresh vegetables very well. Kept spooning it onto my rice, so gewd... Another favourite for sure.

Soft Shell Crab Stir-Fried with Snake Beans, Wild Ginger, Basil and Black Pepper Sauce -- $34.00

Was definitely taken aback by this at the start... Soft-shelled crabs... STIR FRIED...?? Don't think I've ever had soft shelled crabs that wasn't deep fried.

But since the waitress recommended it, we decided to give it a go. In fact, I was totally wrong. Def a very tasty dish and loved how generous they were with the soft shell crabs.

Veal Shank Curry

Lots of fresh, flavour profiles (from the pineapples, tomatoes, etc) in this monochromatic curry. Veal was delicious and falling off the bone.

Lychee Filled Jam Doughnuts with Cinnamon Ice-Cream -- $14.00

Doughnut was quite dense, felt like it needed more sauce to help it go down. Still, interesting concept.

Lemongrass Panna Cotta with Mango Marshmallow -- $14.00

Ermm.... This was way too weird for me. Couldn't get past the strong lemongrass flavour in the dessert and it almost tasted like curry leaves! Pass...

Passionfruit Brulee with Puffed Wild Rice and Coconut Ice-Cream -- $14.00

Really liked the ultra thin crust at the top. Custard was delicious but only wish that it had set a bit more because it was a tad runny. In their defence, passionfruit was an AMAZING flavour to use for a creme brulee and now I want to make this at home too. That aside, BEST COCONUT ICE CREAM EVERRR!

Will just stick to this dessert from now on...

Final Thoughts:

Overall, this place is AWESOMEEE... First, the whole ambience of the place was fantastic. Lots of buzz but thankfully the high ceilings and wide open space drowned out the noise. Decor was simple, yet classy.  Again, that room with the massive red lantern in the middle... Stunning...

BEST part about this was that even though I expected to pay $35 per person for a meal at a place like this (which we did), I was surprised by how big the portions were (especially the mains). Hugeeee... Even if the portions were cut in half (which I sure as hell hope they won't), they would still be considered a fair quantity in many other similar Modern Asian restaurants. 

And, yes... The food was deliciously executed and we all enjoyed the entrees and mains very much. 

Another thing that we found to be a vital factor for the enjoyment of our meal was the unlimited supply of rice. I know, I know... Sound so Asian. No, really. The mains were really tasty and pairing it with white, fluffy Jasmine rice made it so much better. 

Would SO gladly come back here over and over again. IMHO, my experience here was WAY better than the one I had in Chin Chin or Longrain. Easy to book, nice environment, prompt food/service, delicious food and value for money. Again, that's just me. I came back here a coupla weeks later with my mate Adrian for a simple catchup one night after work and it was just as awesome.

Red Spice Road... You have definitely won me over (twice in a row). Now, I look forward to coming in to your new branch at QV for more lamb ribs awesomeness in January!

Red Spice Road on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Seri Muka (Pandan Custard with Sweet Glutinous Rice) Recipe

After many disasters in the kitchen... The PERFECT final product (flavour/texture/presentation et al.)... Phewww~!

If you've seen my recent pictures on Instagram, you'll know that I've made and re-made this classic Malaysian "kuih" or bite-sized treats for 3 times the past 2 weeks. 

So what IS Kuih Seri Muka?

Well, it's basically a two-layered dessert with sweetened glutinous rice at the bottom and pandan custard at the top. The custard tastes almost like "Kaya" (a Malaysian coconut jam) because it's essentially made of pandan, coconut, eggs and sugar. Also known as "kueh salat" or "kuih salat".

I've read at least a dozen recipes on the Internet before finally deciding to combine the recipes by Terri (of Hunger Hunger) and Sonia (of Nasi Lemak Lover). Mainly because Terri's description of the perfect seri muka resonates very much with mine (so I trusted her measurements) and Sonia's method is simple and easy-to-follow. Plus, I've tried countless recipes by these 2 fantastic cooks (all have worked amazingly well) so I knew I could trust their recipes entirely. 

The PERFECT Seri Muka...

I know everyone's got different tastes and preferences, but this is how I like MY Seri Muka to be.

Custard - Surface is super smooth. Custard is soft and just set but still gives you a sharp, clean cut. Most commercial Seri Mukas are chewy and elastic (overladen with tapioca flour). That texture is more meant for "Kuih Lapis" (steamed layer cake).

Rice - Cooked through but not too much so you can still see the individual grains and avoid a lumpy/pasty texture. Just a tad salty to bring out the flavour and counter the sweetness of the custard. 

Personally, I really really prefer not to use any store bought pandan essence/paste and green colouring when making this. Keep it real, people.

Super clean cut and perfect rice/custard... Happy!
(and pls excuse my lame attempt at "food styling" with the trees in the BG)


Unfortunately as usual, I'm super careless/unlucky/noob in the kitchen and have made every single mistake in the book when it comes to making this dessert, my gawd... I've unknowingly tried what happens when you follow a recipe correctly, made it completely wrong and involuntarily tried everything else in between. 

Lots of mistakes that I've had to learn the hard way, which I'll share so hopefully everyone can avoid the nightmares I've had in the kitchen...! 

Taste was nice, but my really ugly first attempt... 
Uneven surface, rough edges after slicing, lumped together rice
Please don't laugh =X

Mistake #1: Custard lumped on the stove from not stirring properly

I had trouble understanding what it meant when the recipe said to "stir until the mixture is shiny and slightly thickens". To me, the use of coconut milk in the mixture already made it thick and glossy, so I wasn't sure what the mixture was meant to look like and doubted myself the whole way. Got impatient and left the pot unattended momentarily.

LESSON: Stir CONSTANTLY until you start feeling more resistance in the mixture from the thickening

Mistake #2: Taking the custard out too early without thickening

As I said, I thought the mixture had thickened already (since it coated the back of the spatula) but turns out that was just the coconut milk. End result: custard barely set at the top and had to pour a lot of it out. FAIL.

LESSON: Stir CONSTANTLY until you will slowly feel more resistance in the mixture from the thickening

Mistake #3: Oversteaming the rice

Rice became so thick, pasty and all lumped together. All the recipes just said "steam for 30 minutes". But how high/low heat? It makes a big difference.

LESSON: Don't steam on high heat.

Mistake #4: Understeaming the rice

Steamed at same length of time but at low heat. Rice was tough and uncooked. Felt alright/el dente when I first took it out but continued to harden as it was cooling down. 

LESSON: Steam on MEDIUM, increase the steaming time and decrease the rice to water ratio

Mistake #5: Couldn't get sharp, clean edges when slicing

LESSON: Remember to OIL the knife first!

Mistake #6: Not using the right tool to blend the pandan leaves

I thought I could use a pestle and mortar to pound the pandan leaves but you'll find it's way too hard to do. Also, should not add all the leaves at once because only the bottom got blended (while the top remains untouched)

LESSON: Use an actual blender (and not pestle/mortar, mini blender like I did) and blend in batches

Mistake #7: Rice to custard ratio was off (too much rice)

LESSON: Decrease amount of rice, maintain same amount of liquid

Mistake #8: Fluffing the rice in between cooking process

Rice was hard to flatten after cooked (because it's so sticky) so my rice layer was uneven no matter how hard I tried.

LESSON: Don't fluff the rice in between. No point.


My goodness it was honestly one nightmare after another... I seriously am no good with desserts. But after much persistence and letting my "kiasu" personality in the kitchen kick in... I've made it! Although I got lots of compliments and people seemed to really enjoy the first 2 batches (I think cause the flavour was spot on), I personally wasn't 100% happy with it until the 3rd and final batch... YAY!

Anyway, these treats really are delicious to eat and something everyone can enjoy. Plus, if you learn from my mistakes and avoid the horrors that I've experienced, you'll find that this recipe is actually very simple to make! And this is coming from a dessert noob... So anyhoo, I do hope you give these a go... Promise you won't regret it! =]


Seri Muka Recipe 
(adapted from these recipes by Hunger Hunger and Nasi Lemak Lover)


Bottom Layer:
400g glutinous rice (soaked overnight, drained)
250ml coconut cream + 250ml water
1 1/4 tsp salt
2 pandan leaves (knotted)

Custard Layer:
3 large eggs
200g caster sugar
400ml coconut cream + 400ml water
100ml pandan water (see recipe below!)
80g tapioca flour
50g plain flour
1 heaped tbsp corn flour

Optional: Few drops of green food colouring (I omitted this because I don't like the stuff)


Bottom Layer:

1. Mix the rice, coconut milk solution, salt in a 24cm springform round pan (or anything of similar size/area).

2. Add the pandan leaves on top. Steam on medium heat for 40 - 45 minutes. Set aside.

Custard Layer:

1. Whisk the eggs and sugar until sugar is dissolved.

2. Add in pandan water, coconut milk solution and (and green colouring if using). Mix well.

3. Sift in flour and whisk till well combined. Strain the mixture and let rest for 10 minutes.

4. Pour mixture into pot and stir constantly under LOW heat with wooden spatula until mixture just thickens. 

You'll know when there's more resistance in the mixture after some time. Don't cook until custard is too thick or texture won't be smooth.

5. Pour mixture over the rice and tap the pan on the surface lightly to release any air bubbles. 

6. Steam for 25 minutes under LOW heat. Make sure small opening for your wok lid is open to release any pent-up steam.

7. Allow to cool for several hours. Oil your knife slightly before cutting up to small rectangular/triangular/diamond shaped pieces. ENJOY =)

See the lumps at the top from not stirring? This is from not watching the pot. Pls ignore.

Just the perfectly smooth, clean surface I was after. Delicious!

How to: Make Pandan Water


12 pandan leaves
100ml water


1. Cut pandan leaves to about 1/2 inch pieces.
2. Blend the pandan and water in 4 batches.
3. Strain the mixture.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Pabu Grill & Sake, Collingwood

Love the space, perfect for a nice catchup meal esp on a weeknight

Is it just me or does anyone else feel like the food scene in Smith St is getting more and more interesting these days? There's a growing number of new, exciting restaurants along that strip that I'd love to try and Smith St does very well have the potential to be the next "hot spot" for the Melb food scene. 

What brought me here to Pabu Grill & Sake was an e-mail I received from the owner, Khoa, asking whether I'd like to come in to eat at his restaurant one of these days because he's got a story to share... 

Great. I'm all about stories, inspirations and good memories behind Food (and not just what's on the plate). As I've also mentioned, Smith St's food scene has slowly been grabbing my attention more and more these days. PLUS, the fact that it's an Izakaya concept caught my attention even more (after being far from impressed and not seeing what the big deal is about with the "famous" Izakaya Den). 

Along with 2 of my mates, we headed over to Pabu after work last week and must say I liked the vibe of the place from the moment I walked in... Cool, casual, relaxed. Recipe for a good Izakaya setting. 

After taking a look at the menu ourselves and going by Khoa's recommendations for the "signature" dishes, we eagerly waited for our food to arrive...

Hamachi Sashimi - $14
Kingfish served with yuzu soy and thin slices of jalapeno chilli

Fresh! Interesting as we were advised to roll the fish from the outer end, encasing the chilli so we could make sure we got a bit of everything. Kingfish/jalapeno/ginger yuzu soy together, it's all very good. 

Renkon Chips - $5
Sliced lotus root chips

Chips were semi thick, crunchy and just nicely salted. 

Edamame - $6
Lightly salted soy beans

Edamame, however, was on the salty end. But we were only eating the beans in the pod, so no dramas.

Pabu Sumiyaki Set - $16.50
Includes 5 mixed skewers: tsukune (chicken balls), yakitori (chicken thigh), chilli inari kushi (bean curd), gyu kushi (beef), buta kushi (pork belly)

Liked everything! Some were a tiny tad on the salty side but I didn't mind. It was still amazingly grilled and each brought beautiful flavours, fun platter to share.

Khoa was also telling us about how they use bamboo (instead of charcoal) for the grilled meats to make it more environmentally friendly and also give a subtle arome to the meat.

Hotate - $5
Large juicy scallops with bacon and wasaby mayo

These skewers at the front have been blurred out but they were really delicious! The flavourful bacon with the wasabi mayo (which wasn't overpowering and just nice) was so good with the scallops. Love it.

Watari Kani Karaage - $10
Soft shell crab lightly coated and deep fried, served with lettuce and herbs dipped in spicy mayo

LIKE. I find most places to overcoat their soft shelled crabs with batter (so you end up eating mostly fried flour) but not this. You could still taste the meat because this was perfectly light, thin and crisp on the outside.

I also liked that our piece has got lots of crab roe in the meat. Huge brownie points for me, personally because I enjoy that. Though, not entirely sure about serving it with rocket leaves. Baby spinach might've been better?

Sake Aburi Sashimi - $14
Slices of salmon lightly seared with hot sesame oil, ponzu soy, ginger, spring onion and roasted sesame seeds, 8 pieces

Really liked this! The thick chunk of salmon was seared nicely before being sliced up (as opposed to searing individual slices). Great texture and every other component paired the fish very well. Enjoyed this a lot.

I'm sure my friend Winnie (aka my aburi salmon buddy) would like this too!

Nasu Dengaku - $9
Grilled eggplant with sweet and spicy mayo

Bit sweeter for my liking but still liked eating this because of how nicely grilled the eggplant was. Everything was soft and tender with no tough, rubbery bits.

Ebi Karaage - $8
Crispy marinated spicy prawns with spicy mayo and sweet chilli sauce

FAVOURITE dish of the night! Marinade was delicious and prawns were incredibly crunchy, especially the head. 

But what I liked most is that the prawns were almost medium in size (as opposed to the tiny school prawns). That way, you can totally taste and bite into the meat as well. Fantastic marinade too.

Though, I couldn't help but think it would've been even more kickass if they used Sriracha chilli (instead of sweet chilli) mayo for this... Still, SO GOOD. Enjoyed every single piece of this.

Green Tea

Final Thoughts:

Overall, I really like Pabu. I thought all the dishes were good and the setting was really nice and inviting, perfect for a chilled out meal with friends after work over drinks.

Best part was that the prices were REALLY reasonable (see above). Khoa explained how he personally feels that most Izakaya places in Melbourne are overpriced (ahem, totally agree!) and his aim was to price it in a way that people feel comfortable enough coming to dine here twice a week, as opposed to once a month. This is also why you can always find regulars coming back to this 7 week old establishment.

Personally, I feel that even if I end up paying $30+ as I would at other Izakayas in Melbourne, at least I get to eat a whole LOT more in terms of variety here too. Another reason why I feel lots of people would really identify with this place, is because of the story it tells. It really is by customers (and lover of Izakaya food) for customers, and it shows.

Besides the great pricing, I really like how there was SO much to choose from in the menu. Now, THIS is the kind of Izakaya meal I enjoy. It was one that appealed to everyone and we would've loved to eat more if only we had the stomach space.

And don't hate me for saying, but I really did find my experience at Izakaya Den to be mediocre and underwhelming and would gladly eat at Pabu over that place any day. I know a few friends who have been there since I posted pictures of my meal here on Instagram and thought the same too. 

This may sound like a generous review, but hey, I call it as I see (or taste) it, "sponsored" or not. Now, my only hope is that they continue to keep up the good work. Do give this place a go and let me know how you go. As for me, I'm definitely going to take my family here for a nice Jap meal sometime in the next 2 weeks... =)

Disclaimer: Winston and friends dined here as a Guest of Pabu Grill & Sake at a discounted price. All opinions are honest and based on my own personal experience at the time.

Pabu Grill & Sake on Urbanspoon