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From abandoned baby to successful bah kut teh restauranteur

From abandoned baby to successful bah kut teh restauranteur

The first thing you’ll notice about Carolyn Tan Bee Kim is her smile. Tan’s smile is gentle and warm, much like herself – and you can’t help but instantly like her.

Given the positive energy emanating from her, it’s hard to believe how unbelievably cruel life was to her as a baby.

Over 30 years ago, soon after Tan was born in Penang (the sixth child in the family), her biological parents dumped her in a trash can. Thankfully, her alert babysitter realised something was amiss, found her and took her in.

A few years later, Tan was adopted by a wonderful family and grew up very, very loved. When she was 11, her adoptive parents told her the truth about the circumstances surrounding her birth, and Tan admits that the news did affect her for awhile.

“I was really upset at the time – there were a lot of emotions and I kept asking myself, ‘Why did my biological parents not want me and abandon me that way?’ The feelings lasted about a month. After that, I overcame it because I have really great adoptive parents who love me a lot,” she says.

carolyn tan

Before she died, Tan’s grandmother left her a note asking her to continue her culinary legacy and Tan was determined to honour that request by the time she turned 30.

Tan had plenty to be happy about as a child. Growing up, she was particularly close to her adoptive grandmother, a fabulous Peranakan cook who ran a stall in Bukit Mertajam, Penang, for 25 years. Tan’s curiousity about food was piqued by her grandmother, who had given up the stall and lived with the family, cooking for them every day.

“My grandma loved to cook! She never missed cooking any meals for the family – she cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner – and regularly made Peranakan food like ayam pong teh, nyonya laksa and mee siam. She also loved to cook bak kut teh for the family – that was her specialty. When I was small, I would never miss spending time with my grandma in the kitchen, so that actually started to build my interest in cooking and baking,” she says.

Her grandmother’s health started to decline when Tan was in her teens, so at 15, Tan started experimenting in the kitchen, trying to recreate her grandmother’s recipes.

“She was already sick and in bad shape, so I was in the kitchen trying to cook her food and make everything taste exactly like how she made it, because I knew she wouldn’t be in the world for long and I just wanted to continue her legacy,” she says.

When Tan was 17, her grandmother passed away. Tan was devastated but her grief was tempered by a note that her grandmother had left her just two days before her death.

“The note said: ‘You are very capable. If you have the financial means, try and open a restaurant and continue my legacy’,” says Tan.

Tan’s bak kut teh is made according to how her grandmother made it, with a broth that is cooked for six hours to attain maximum flavour.

Although Tan has over 30 cousins, to her knowledge, she is the only one who was left this message by her grandmother. Tan made a silent promise to honour her grandmother’s request but spent the next decade or so working as a tax consultant in large accounting firms. Even as she thrived in her career, the nebulous idea of opening her own restaurant and honouring her grandmother’s request remained in the foreground. So she gave herself a deadline: quit her employment and open a restaurant when she turned 30.

This year, Tan is 30 and has successfully fulfilled her grandmother’s request by opening Appa Bistro & Bar in the Telawi area in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur. The restaurant serves up her grandmother’s signature bak kut teh dishes as well as some new inventions that Tan came up with. Tan will also soon be introducing Peranakan staples like ayam pongteh.

Although Tan spent plenty of time with her grandmother in the kitchen, she never formally wrote down any of her recipes, learning purely through observation instead.

“I always followed her in the kitchen and memorised the ingredients from watching her, so that is how I learnt. Nothing was ever written down,” she says.

carolyn tan

Tan learnt how to cook her grandmother’s bak kut teh from watching her in the kitchen. She never wrote down her recipes, but remembers the way her food tastes.

But her powers of observation must have been acute because the bak kut teh at Appa is really, really good. Tan’s signature Appa bak kut teh is made with Chinese herbs and spices like fennel seeds, cinnamon seeds and star anise, boiled with roasted garlic and shiitake mushrooms – for three hours – before the meat is added. The broth is then cooked for another two hours, before the meat is taken out and the broth simmered for an additional hour.

The resulting flavours are delightful – the mixture is warm and nurturing, with a rich depth – the perfect panacea for a rainy day. The pork pieces have also been cooked well, and are meltingly tender.

Tan also created innovative new bak kut teh variants for her eatery, including claypot pork rice, which uses bak kut teh broth (livened up by Shiaoxing wine) to flavour the rice. The rice is tender and has a lovely tonic-like quality from the broth infused in it.

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Another invention Tan came up with is bak kut teh goreng, a creative take on fried rice that also infuses the herbal flavours of bak kut teh. “I just wanted to make something different in the market that hasn’t come out yet, so I came up with nasi goreng bak kut teh,” she says.

This new creation is devilishly good – beautifully fried rice with bak kut teh undertones that meld sublimely well in this amalgamation.

For Tan, though, just being able to cook for others and share her grandmother’s legacy is enough.

“My grandmother always had this principle that you should put all your passion and love into the food you cook, and when you serve the food and see the customers’ satisfaction, you have shown them all your love,” she says.

It is clear that love forms the heart and soul of everything Tan does. It is at the core of her being, and is what has led her to readily forgive things that happened to her in the past. Tan even met her birth mother recently at her biological father’s funeral and says she holds no grudges. “I can forgive – it’s in the past now,” she says.

This restaurant uses eggs in clever ways

This restaurant uses eggs in clever ways

The Hermitage is a gastronomic equaliser.

Head chef Simon Teing brings his fine dining past to bear on his casual dining present. A kitchen alumnus of such KL stalwarts as Lafite, Cilantro and Sage, he has conceptualised a menu that reimagines what we may take for granted – the humble, invaluable egg – in a slew of imaginative, French technique-heavy dishes with local and Japanese ingredients.

Simultaneously, he draws from the premium pantry, weaving touches of luxe ingredients like foie gras and black truffles into menu creations, while keeping prices in the mid-range.

The accessibility of fine ingredients for everyday customers is the vision of owners Casey Chong and her husband – himself a chef – who opened the high-ceilinged, turquoise-accented, concrete-and-wood-styled restaurant in November 2017.

“We make that possible by taking good quality ingredients, but not necessarily the absolute top of the range,” says Chong. Clever kitchen conceptualisation also enables the dream, with foie gras turned into (a swoonsome) butter, and a little truffle going a long way.

Chong and Teing were colleagues at Cilantro – where Chong worked her way to becoming assistant restaurant manager – almost 20 years ago, before she left to join the retail industry. The Hermitage marks her return to the F&B scene, and you’ll find her on the floor every day.

The Hermitage

Co-owners Casey Chong and Simon Teing met at Cilantro 20 years ago.

“I worked with a few hotels as well, but I always enjoyed the personal touch of the fine dining scene,” says Chong. “We try to bring that to The Hermitage now, in our connections with our customers.”

“When we thought of opening our own place, my husband wanted two things – to introduce premium ingredients at affordable prices, and to have as much as possible made from scratch.”

So breads and croissants – which you can have plain, or with salted egg yolk butter, or dulce de leche or citrus compote – are baked by the five-strong kitchen team, pates and terrines moulded, and duck bacon cured in-house.

“The croissant is a huge challenge, because we don’t have a (temperature-controlled) pastry room,” says Teing. “But we compensate by just working faster to make them. The key to being able to make all this from scratch is good kitchen management, and in turn, making our own gives us more control.”

The result is a distinctive, memorable, detail-oriented menu, full of character and gastro-discovery to jumpstart jaded palates.

An all-day breakfast menu begins the day, with items like sandwiches and burgers showing up after 11am, along with a selection of pastas and don, or Japanese-inspired rice bowls.

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We started with the prosaic-sounding Cheesy Egg Roll (RM32), which turned out to be an omelette, lacy-edged and creamy-centred. It was rolled around a filling of prawns, crunchy fresh mushrooms and mozzarella, carefully scattered with bonito flakes and finely-chopped spring onions, and finished with a delectably smoky mentaiko aioli. A buttery, petite croissant flanked it, and the dish turned out to be the perfect meld of French and Japanese kitchen sensibilities.

The Brekkie Rossini (RM38) was substantial and decadent, a brunch-y twist on the French classic Tournedos Rossini – poached eggs dripping rich yolk to meld with a slab of the marvellously rich foie gras butter, the mixture pooling on fork-tender, generous slabs of slow-cooked ox cheek and buttery slices of brioche. Black truffle slices perfumed the assemblage; each mouthful was memorably sensuous.

The Hermitage

These thin vanilla crêpes are perfect for breakfast or dessert.

Thin vanilla crêpes (RM23) – perfect for breakfast or dessert – were intriguingly paired with little pools of butternut squash purée and the milky caramel of dulce de leche, to great effect.

“The squash is usually found in savoury dishes, I wanted to use it in a different way,” said Teing. He added clusters of slivered almonds coated in chocolate to finish the dish, although they were bonuses – the crêpe-butternut-dulce de leche trio turned out to be ideal in itself. The crêpes are usually served with vanilla ice cream, but we tried them with a deliciously dense vanilla frozen yoghurt instead, also house-made and with just a hint of tang.

From the late breakfast menu, The Hermitage Club Sandwich (RM26) is reminiscent of a katsu sandwich, but Teing’s reimagining has a creamy-chunky slab of pate coated with breadcrumbs and sandwiched between slices of a butter loaf, along with foie gras butter, mushrooms and finely-sliced fried cabbage and onion.

The Hermitage

The Hermitage Club Sandwich is a creamy-chunky slab of pate coated with breadcrumbs and sandwiched between slices of a butter loaf.

For pasta-lovers, The Hermitage’s version of aglio olio (RM30) has nicely al dente spaghetti in a garlicky, chilli-spiked lobster oil with prawns and scallops – although I would have preferred my prawns more gently cooked; there’s also the Duckling, a fowl celebration of penne topped with a duck leg cooked confit, with cheese, a wobbly-yolked fried duck egg and foie gras butter combining for a rich coating on the pasta.

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The Hermitage

Teing is proud of his speciality soufflés – this one is a classic vanilla soufflé with dark chocolate sauce.

Teing is rightly proud of his speciality soufflés, each RM18; we tried the classic vanilla with dark chocolate sauce, and it was fluffy, ethereal and cloud-light. Each souffle comes with a scoop of frozen yoghurt.

There are many things to draw you back to The Hermitage: Teing’s love for experimentation underscored with solid technique, the interesting and reasonably-priced menu, and friendly service. But for me, it’s the attention to detail, to flavoured butters and house-cured bacon in a casual dining setting, that will inspire repeat visits.

The Hermitage

F-G-7, Plaza Arkadia
Persiaran Residen 3
Jalan Intisari
Desa Parkcity
Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 03-2715 8715
Open Mondays to Fridays, 9am to 8pm, and Saturdays and Sundays, 9am to 10pm

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