PETALING JAYA, Sept 28 — Smoky, caramelised char siu with a sticky in-house glaze; mee ulam tossed in budu and lacto-fermented chilli; and juicy wontons — each dumpling stuffed with prawns and pork — and served in a prawn broth rasam.
This is yet another flavourful meal at Fifty Tales, a contemporary restaurant in Bandar Sri Damansara that offers dai chow fare with an artisanal touch.
Chef owner Aaron Phua would tell you that he is a specialist at handmade egg noodles, but his résumé is even more colourful than this already admirable accomplishment.
The 27-year-old studied hospitality management and worked part-time in hotels, banquet halls and cafés. He recalls, “I found my love for coffee in 2013 and interned at Departure Lounge. Together with my family, we opened Thirty Seconds Café in 2014 and I have participated in various barista competitions domestically and internationally.”
That last bit is another typical understatement from Phua. After several years of competing, he was crowned the Malaysia Barista Champion in 2019 and represented our country in the World Barista Championship 2019 in Boston.
Which would be a great place to be, if one wanted to expand one’s burgeoning coffee empire. Instead, Phua decided to return to his childhood dream, which was to be a chef. And thus Fifty Tales was born.
Phua says, “At the end of 2019, I had the inspiration of opening a Chinese noodle bar while making noodles at home. There are many foreign cuisines available in the Klang Valley so we wanted to be a little different. As a modern Malaysian Chinese restaurant, I want to cook Malaysian Chinese dishes and recreate the nostalgic flavours I used to enjoy as a kid.”
To that end, the kitchen team makes fresh noodles from scratch every day, using only eggs, with no water, chemicals or kansui (alkaline).
Perhaps there’s no noodle dish at Fifty Tales that’s more representative of Phua’s philosophy than his signature OG Style: every chewy, slurp-worthy strand slick with their own soy sauce and loaded with crunchy pork lard.
Phua says, “Our OG noodles were what our customers kept coming back for. Based on my childhood memory, it is how a bowl of dry noodles should be. We will reintroduce it in the near future.”
Till the return of the OG, the restaurant’s current signature bowl of noodles is their Fifty Tales Laksa, their mouthwatering take on curry laksa.
But Phua assures there is more than meets the eye: “We make our rempah fresh and from scratch, the way a granny would make it — grinding and frying till pecah minyak. Also we use gula Melaka in the mix, with rich creaminess from the coconut milk and just the right amount of spiciness.”
When Phua first began, he used pork bone broth for Fifty Tales’ noodles. This caused some customers to confuse it with Japanese ramen. Due to the prolonged pandemic and lockdown, the team had a chance to rethink and realign their brand story along with the food that they cook.
As a result, the new menu at Fifty Tales employs chicken broth rather than pork bone broth, to differentiate it from the similar tonkotsu stock favoured by ramen shops. More familiar comfort food standards such as Hakka noodles, laksa and pork lard rice are now also fixtures.
If the idea is to have customers revelling in nostalgic flavours, Fifty Tales is off to a good start. Rather than rest on his laurels, however, Phua wants to keep experimenting.
Recently the kitchen started delving into lacto-fermentation, food ageing and even Chinese “charcuterie” to add more depth of flavour. Adventuring into the world of food preservation and cultures means that even the simplest dishes can be elevated at Fifty Tales.
The humble eggplant soars with a dip made from nam yu (red fermented bean curd). If you think aubergines are boring, the funkiness ensures every bite will thrill you.
Carnivores might not think twice about a wagyu beef stir fry, but pair that with lacto-fermented leeks and ginger? The dish now sings.
Even seafood can benefit from the anaerobic process where microorganisms such as yeast and bacteria transform their texture and flavours. Fifty Tales’ steamed octopus with pickled ginger and spring onions is one stellar example: the use of shio koji (made with rice, salt and Aspergillus oryzae mould) tenderises and suffuses every ring and tentacle with umami.
When the restaurant first started, operations were rudimentary. A lean and agile approach meant that Fifty Tales could try to cater to a general crowd and then adapt as they learn on the go.
Phua shares, “We started as a 10am to 10pm restaurant; aiming to serve both lunch and dinner crowds. Our food is suitable for all age groups; there will be something for everyone. We are a very small team of four people. We would definitely love to grow the team but the current situation just wouldn’t allow it.”
That current situation is of course the same one affecting everyone, though the F&B (food and beverage) industry has its own specific difficulties.
Phua explains, “We have had to rely solely on delivery and takeaways since the beginning of the lockdown. Business has definitely dropped significantly but we are thankful to all who have supported us. We remodelled our menu, experimented with new items so that as dine-in resumes, we can give our customers the best dining experience they’re longing for.”
The challenging situation has dialled up creativity levels. Some of the new dishes include chicken, done two ways: Steamed, and served with a vibrant spring onion pesto and pickled cucumbers, as well as fried as tenders, with a dusting of aged calamansi salt.
Regulars of Fifty Tales look forward to visiting the restaurant on the weekends for their Cincai Dinner. (Cincai may mean “casual” or “as one pleases” in local slang.) Available only on Friday through Sunday, the rotating menu often features whatever is seasonal or fresh from local markets.
Phua explains, “Cincai Dinner is basically a menu that focuses on dishes that are meant to be paired with plain noodles or plain rice. Here we introduce dai chow style dishes such as our chrysanthemum clams, grilled kailan and smoked lychee sambal prawns.”
Dai chow style might be understating his delicate offerings just a tad. The fresh clams are steamed with chrysanthemum oil and Chinese rose wine. Florets of kailan are lightly grilled with kelulut honey and balanced with some 32-day aged preserved duck ham (which are made in-house).
There is care that goes into every dish, something Phua will attest to. He adds, “Our Cincai Dinner is only available on weekends because as a kid I remembered only having such dinners outside during weekends.”
One can empathise; we all have a favourite version of sambal prawns from our childhood. With the unique fragrance and flavour of Phua’s smoked lychee sambal prawns, however, some of us might just have a new favourite now.
5-G, Jalan Margosa SD 10/4a, Bandar Sri Damansara, PJ
Open daily (except Wed closed) 10am-9pm
Tel: 012-399 2697