Hakka food at Michele’s Kitchen warms the heart and tummy

The family behind Michele’s Kitchen (from left to right): Agnes Tan, Michele Tan and Vincent Tan. – Pictures by Shafwan Zaidon and courtesy of Michele’s Kitchen
The family behind Michele’s Kitchen (from left to right): Agnes Tan, Michele Tan and Vincent Tan. – Pictures by Shafwan Zaidon and courtesy of Michele’s Kitchen

PETALING JAYA, April 1 — Four years ago, Michele Tan — who is Hakka — started Michele’s Kitchen in Damansara Jaya.

The restaurant is very much a family affair.Her husband, KL Tan, who is retired from his steel factory, can be seen taking orders while their daughter Agnes manages the restaurant.

Assisting Michele in the kitchen is her youngest son, Vincent. Relive your memories of Hakka heritage food as the restaurant dishes up traditional eats such as hand-shaped abacus seeds made with yam, comforting mui choy kaw yoke, fragrant yellow rice wine chicken and the list goes on. 

Older folks will recognise the ubiquitous cold jelly chicken, a popular banquet dish from the 1960s
Older folks will recognise the ubiquitous cold jelly chicken, a popular banquet dish from the 1960s

It’s hard to believe that Michele is 65 years old as she looks incredibly youthful. “If you’re passionate about your work, you look like this,” she tells us with a chuckle.

From an early age, Michele would follow her mother whenever she cooked for others. Like a shadow, she picked up her cooking skills, just by observing her mother who would be hired with a bunch of cooks to help privately cater food for families or businesses.

Following in her mother’s footsteps, she boldly applied for a job to cook for a hardware company when she was just 17 years old. She challenged the owner, telling him to test out her food first before deciding if she should stay.

The restaurant is patronised by those who love home cooked tastes and Hakka food
The restaurant is patronised by those who love home cooked tastes and Hakka food
The restaurant has a second floor that is usually opened when their first floor is crowded or for special functions
The restaurant has a second floor that is usually opened when their first floor is crowded or for special functions

The workers loved her food, assuring her of a job there. She recalled how she had to prepare two meals a day for 22 workers. Lunch would often be a rushed affair since she’d return from the market with fresh produce to cook up the midday meal. Dinner saw her serving a soup boiled for many hours.

Later, following what was in trend, she ditched the job for a prospect in Singapore to learn hairdressing. While it was way more glamorous, hairdressing just didn’t ignite much excitement for her.

Most importantly, the long hours to perm, cut and style hair didn’t appeal to her, especially if a customer was dissatisfied with the style given. “It’s easier to just cook a dish and try again if it doesn’t work out.”

About 15 years ago, the passionate cook decided to open up her own cafe in Kepong where they served meals catering to solo diners. When Agnes gave birth to her son about eight years ago, they stopped the business for some time.

A classic dish from the past is eight treasure duck which is reinterpreted with chicken at Michele’s Kitchen
A classic dish from the past is eight treasure duck which is reinterpreted with chicken at Michele’s Kitchen
For Chinese New Year or special occasions, their Hakka poon choy was a popular choice for families and requires three days advance booking
For Chinese New Year or special occasions, their Hakka poon choy was a popular choice for families and requires three days advance booking

Later, they revived their business at this two-storey restaurant in Damansara Jaya. Agnes explains that this area was selected since they observed that it’s a mature neighbourhood which lacked traditional Chinese food like this.

Throughout the day, the restaurant gets a steady stream of customers. Most of them are regulars, calling up to place their orders for takeaway or planning long corporate lunches.

On the surface, you may think, this place resembles a tai chow dressed up as a restaurant. Taste their food and you will find there’s a subtle distinction, since food is cooked in a style similar to a home kitchen.

A popular order item for families is their steamed Nyonya style fish head. You can also opt for other versions with chopped ginger or just plain steamed
A popular order item for families is their steamed Nyonya style fish head. You can also opt for other versions with chopped ginger or just plain steamed
Their yong tau foo is prepared the traditional Hakka way, stuffed with a filling of minced pork, fish paste and salted fish
Their yong tau foo is prepared the traditional Hakka way, stuffed with a filling of minced pork, fish paste and salted fish

For instance, Agnes explains, more time is spent in preparing a simple stir fried long beans dish with roast pork. Here, they take time to slowly pan fry the roast pork till it’s fragrant. Unlike the restaurant that will just dip it quickly in hot oil, using a typical chef’s shortcut.

The menu is an extensive one -- giving room for multiple visits -- to try every item. Go for their crispy pork belly; thickish slices of three layered pork, deep fried to perfection with a hint of savouriness from the nam yue or fermented beancurd.

Unlike other places, each piece has a nice balance of fats and meat. We dare you to stop at just one... since they are incredibly addictive! No wonder, Agnes tells us, it’s a firm favourite with everyone. We’ll definitely vouch for this addictive dish.

You can order the traditional Hakka dish of abacus shaped dumplings fashioned out from yam
You can order the traditional Hakka dish of abacus shaped dumplings fashioned out from yam
Like a comforting hug, their homemade yellow rice wine chicken is served with wood ear fungus, fresh ginger and wolf berries (left). We guarantee you won’t be able to stop eating this crispy pork belly, marinated with nam yue or fermented beancurd (right)
Like a comforting hug, their homemade yellow rice wine chicken is served with wood ear fungus, fresh ginger and wolf berries (left). We guarantee you won’t be able to stop eating this crispy pork belly, marinated with nam yue or fermented beancurd (right)
For something unusual, go for the fried pumpkin mee sua whereby the orange, smooth strands are handmade in Kepong by a family
For something unusual, go for the fried pumpkin mee sua whereby the orange, smooth strands are handmade in Kepong by a family

Other trademark items include a variety of dishes using pig’s intestines. Popular in the old days, this item is almost extinct in modern-day menus. Here, they offer the ingredient, stir fried with different flavours, using dried shrimps, pineapple or even fresh basil leaves.

If you love soupy items, your top choice should be their yellow rice chicken. One whiff of their fragrant homemade wine made from glutinous rice with its warming effect will evoke comfort and envelope you like a hug. Solo diners can even opt for this served with smooth strands of mee sua.

Old timers will recognise a classic banquet dish from the 1960s — the cold jelly chicken. Michele tells us that originally the cold jelly was much more than just chicken, it would also include chicken gizzards and pig’s stomach.

Frying up the noodles requires lots of skills
Frying up the noodles requires lots of skills
Vincent Tan may just be 21 years old but he’s a pro when it comes to frying up items in the kitchen
Vincent Tan may just be 21 years old but he’s a pro when it comes to frying up items in the kitchen

However, as healthier diets rule the present day, these have been omitted. Michele’s version, known as the colourful cold platter or leng pun, combines a variety of items like cold salad prawns, baby octopus, jellyfish, century eggs. The sauce for the cold platter has been tweaked to suit present tastes, with a hint of wasabi. In the old days, it was just a simple peanut sauce.

Another well-loved dish is their eight treasure chicken. Traditionally, duck is used for this 1960s dish but as customers prefer chicken, they have adapted the recipe.

Using only kampung chicken, it’s stuffed with goodies such as dried oysters, gingko nuts, roast pork, shiitake mushrooms, water chestnuts and the list goes on. The delicacy requires about six hours of steaming till the meat is fork tender.

One thing you won’t find on their menu is the classic salted steamed chicken, or ham kai. Sadly, that typical Hakka classic has been omitted as most of their customers have a healthier palate, opting for less salty dishes.

Michele tells us, she has had to adjust the amount of salt by three levels to fit their customer’s tastebuds. Don’t be surprised but there’s one Hokkien dish in the menu too.

An item often omitted from modern day menus is pig’s intestines, like this version fried with sliced onions and dried prawns
An item often omitted from modern day menus is pig’s intestines, like this version fried with sliced onions and dried prawns

We understand that the braised pork item is a nod towards Agnes’ father’s Hokkien legacy, a dish that his mother used to cook all the time. You also have a variety of noodle dishes, including an unusual fried pumpkin mee sua. The smooth noodles are made in Kepong by a family business.

It’s hard to believe that your meal here is being cooked up by 21-year-old Vincent, who helms the kitchen like a professional. The young man, following his mother’s footsteps, observed from a young age.

Michele tells us, that she knew her son had the potential to be a great cook when he’d observe on his own what went into each dish she cooked. Just after Form 2, he decided to carve out a career in the kitchen rather than continue studying.

Nowadays, Michele tells us, most of the dishes can be perfectly handled by him. Try his specialty — sang har meen or freshwater prawns noodles — a dish he has perfected which requires at least one hour’s notice to order. Next on his list of classic dishes to tackle and perfect... the ubiquitous Hokkien fried mee.

Michele’s Kitchen

37, Jalan SS22/23, Damansara Jaya, Petaling Jaya

Tel: 03-7731 2237/019-2258003

Open: 11am to 10pm

Closed alternate Mondays