Full Key

Full Key Restaurant

Riddle:  What do a Buddhist, a Jew, and a Muslim do to celebrate the most high of feast days in the Christian calendar, Christmas?  They go to a Chinese restaurant for their yearly seasonal “celebration”.  After all, where else would be open on this most anticipated winter holiday when most folks wake up to a shower of gifts and a large spread of home-cooked meals and sweet delights?  Chinese eateries are very cognizant of the Asian population’s preference for feasting on their restaurant delights on such holidays, and they prepare themselves for such onslaught of customers. With my usual suspects in tow, along with a new friend who hails from Togo, we headed to Full Key, a regular Cantonese haunt located in Wheaton, MD,  that I have not stepped into in many moons, which explains this much tardy write-up on this place.

Shrimp Dumpling Soup

Arriving at the right time with no waiting line and a recently abandoned table covered with its aftermath, it was not long before we settled into the well-worn booth.  With a medium din level of diners and clinking bowls in the background, we quickly ordered our customary opener – Shrimp Dumpling Soup.  The bowl arrived with some whitish dumplings visible through a clear broth, much like a Monet of submerged lilies in a lake.  But one bite brought clarity with its tasty presence.  Under the silky thin dough skin, a slightly firm stuffing of well-seasoned minced shrimp mixed with some minced pork excites the palate with its Umami savoriness, along with strands of wood fungus giving each mouthful a slight soft crunch to these slightly bouncy bites.  The clear soup is the strong supporting actor to the dumplings, made from bonito flakes  and meat stocks (I learned their secret recipe from a restauranter friend) , that adds just the right amount of additional Umami-ness to each sip.  A great starter for a cold winter day that brings back memories of eating it in Southeast Asia.

Roast Duck Noodle Soup

Wanton Noodle SoupThis place is well-known for Hong Kong-style Noodle Soup dishes that are a main staple of the cuisine.  My Muslim friend decided to order a bowl accompanied by pieces of roast duck, following his dietary restrictions.  However, being a carnivore Buddhist, I prefer mine with wanton and a side of Chinese vegetables, Choy Sum.  Back to the noodle – strand of alkaline noodles are slightly chewy and eggy with the perfect al dente bite.  Again, the bonito-meat broth is the savory clean foil to the main ingredients.  The wanton dumplings are just like the shrimp version above except for its firmer texture due to the inverse proportions of shrimp and pork, but not short of its rich flavors.  A requested addition of greens makes the bowl a complete meal with most food groups included as well as a mouthful of textures and flavors.  I mentally kick myself for not coming here more often for this bowlful of childhood memories of Sunday coffee shop breakfast that I missed dearly, especially given its so-goodness here.

Another staple made a la Hong Kong is the Congee dishes, or Rice Porridge.  The plain starch is paired with different elements and I have a couple of favorites after having tasted many bowlfuls.  A popular version is made with Beef, Squid and Peanuts.  According to my Hong Kong-born friend, this is a popular dish with fisherman living in boats on the shores of Kowloon.  I must say that this strange combo works with the pieces of minced beef, strands of tender squid and nutty toasted peanuts.  Another combination is made with Pork and Preserved Egg.  Slivers of boiled pork are paired with an egg that has been allowed to ferment in ash and straw.  This is definitely not a dish for the non-initiated but it is totally up my alley with the mildness of the pork and the ashy bitterness and pungency (spell “stink”) of the fermented egg.  A side of Chinese Breadstick is de rigueur for such a dish adding its slight saltiness and crunch to the thick gruel.  Definitely The Breakfast of Champions for some, including me,

Roast Chicken Roast Duck Rice

Any dish category that this eatery is known for is the Cantonese-styled roast meats.  Unfortunately, when we arrived there, the Roast Pork was already gone – the waiter told us that customers were coming in with 5-lb orders for their family dinners – it must be that good.  My African friend was stuck with a choice of Roast Duck and Roast Chicken.  He told me he enjoyed the duck including the slightly fatty skin (not quite Peking Duck here) and the slightly dark gamey notes that this dark-meat poultry is known for.  The chicken is roasted with a mild soy sauce on the skin which was lacking in flavor for my friend, despite the tasty marinade sauce served on the side. The mentioned fellow vowed to come back and get a taste of that ever-so-popular roast pork.

Beef Gailan Chow Fun

Another style of noodle dish served here comes not with soup but stir-fried.  On this day, I was inspired by the sight of a familiar dish that I had not tasted for some time – Beef and Broccoli Chow Foon.  Wide strands of rice noodles have been slightly wok-fried and covered with a thick brown sauce with slivers of beef, carrots, Chinese broccoli (Gailan), and straw mushrooms swimming in it.  The noodles were bouncy fresh with a slight wok-char flavor, beef seasoned well and tender, vegetables still crunchy but not raw, and the mushrooms slightly woodsy, all disparate elements brought together by the tasty brown sauce tasting of oyster sauce and soy.  Looks like the back kitchen is as skilful with the fried dishes as the front noodle and roast meat counter.

Spicy Salt Crispy SeafoodEqually deft in execution as with the above dish was an order of Deep Fried Shrimp, Scallops & Squid with Spicy Salt. Bits of seafood have been lightly battered and deep-fried until crispy, seasoned with salt and a topping of fried jalapeño slices and green onions.  This dish hit the spot for my Jewish/Latino/Agnostic ex-roomie.  The crispy batter coats morsels of fresh-tasting moist pieces of seafood, seasoned with a sprinkling of salt.  The fried green pepper slices and green onions added the necessary spicy heat and slight sweet pungency.  As my friend put it to my friend from Togo, it is not an everyday dish, but worth relishing every bit of the barely greasy, crispy and salty bites.  Deep-fried and salty seafood – Yummm!

I sometimes wonder why I have deserted this Cantonese style eatery as of late after many years of patronizing it.  I guess I can blame it on gastronomic wanderlust that is enabled by the myriad of cuisines that the DC area offers to its citizens.  It could also be palate apathy that tends to set in after one has grown up eating certain cuisines his or her whole life.  But this last visit only reminded me that yes, these familiar dishes are still worth raving about, especially when well-executed as in the case of Full Key.  So instead of just a yearly visit, I will be back more often for more of the wonderful soup, noodle, rice, roast meat, and seafood dishes that hit both the gastronomic and nostalgic spots.

Full Key on Urbanspoon

Chinese Dinner 1

Recently, members of my family and their spouses and children travelled long distances to meet up in the country which we were grew up in. The purpose of such reunion was for our parents who had been planning to come back to mark their Golden Anniversary with the renewal of their vows in the church where they first exchanged them 50 years ago, and to invite all their respective relatives to a big dinner that night. On the first night of the reunion, the whole gang of 16 decided to have a Chinese dinner in a reputable restaurant not too far from the hotel where we were staying at.

Many of you have read that I have hesitated for the longest to write a blog on Chinese food in the DC restaurant scene. This stems from the fact that I have been spoiled by quality Chinese food either in the restaurants, hawker stalls, or at home as I was growing up in that part of the world. When I would come back to Kuala Lumpur to visit my parents before their migration abroad, I looked forward to the home cooking and to our meals at high-end eating establishments that were always a epicurean highlight for me as I was growing up. Here is one such meal, albeit not quite a banquet, but a quality Chinese dinner.

Chinese BBQ Pork

First Course: Protein – Chinese Barbeque Pork. Customarily, in a regular dinner, there are no appetizers. This rendition comprised of small slabs of pork belly, mostly likely a suckling pig, that has been roasted and basted with a molasses-like sweet and salty sauce. This is my father’s favorite dish, and it is usually not amiss among the other orders.

Roast Duck

Second Course: Another protein – Roast Duck. The restaurant does a wonderful version here. The meat was still moist yet flavorful with the skin completely rendered of its fat and quite crispy. The flavor was less “gamey” than the ones I have tasted in other countries – this dish would win over the not-so-aficionado of this bird meat.

Steamed Sai Kap Fish

Third Course: Seafood. The Chinese prefer to have their seafood cooked simply in order to showcase the freshness and sweetness of the protein. Here a Wild Patin fish has been steamed with some rice wine and ginger juice before lightly covered with a light soy sauce mixture along with some green onion garnish. The flesh was indeed moist and sweet, however, the price of this dish was a bit of a sticker shock – Asians never ask the price before hand. However, it was a worthwhile order for the quality ingredient and cooking. I was just a bit dismayed that they had chopped off the fish’s head, to which the diner would find it a bit suspicious (Asians prefer to see the whole animal/fish intact).

Tofu and Vegetables

Fourth Course: Tofu Dish. Here, pillows of this soybean cake have been fried lightly to give it texture and body, and they are braised along with some Chinese vegetable resembling a large zucchini in a savory sauce.

Chinese Broccoli/Gai Lan

Fifth Course: Vegetable Dish – Chinese Broccoli/Gai Lan. The vegetable has been quickly parboiled and paired with mild sauces like soy sauce or oyster sauce. With this vegetable, it is important not to cook it too long so that the sweetness is retained along with the crunch of the stems. Like the seafood, mildness of flavor and freshness of ingredient are qualities sought after here.

Crispy Noodles with Freshwater Prawns

Sixth Course: Noodle or Rice Dish. Customarily, a noodle or rice dish served in a banquet is considered more or less a “throw away” dish, meaning, if you are still hungry, you better fill up with this dish. However, in a Chinese regular dinner, it is a bit more purposeful, and in this case, we ordered something that we missed very much – Sang Ha Meen.  Crispy bits of egg noodle have been paired by large freshwater prawns in a thick eggy sauce spiked with lots of ginger and green onion. It is favorite among my family members, but it took the restaurant so long to serve it and we waited very impatiently. But once the dish arrived, we attacked and ate it with muted hungry mouths.

Dessert: Since we had waited for a long time for the last dish and we had young toddlers in the group, we opted to skip this course. Usually, fresh fruits or fruit cocktail would be on the order.

In the next couple of blogs, I will write about the Chinese Banquet Meals that I managed to savor on this trip.   Hope this blog builds up an appetite for what is to come.

Malaysian Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner2

Chilies & Lemongrass at the Morning MarketTo continue my series on Malaysian food that I managed to “catch up on” this summer which I have been writing about in the last couple of blogs, here are the other breakfast, lunch and dinner dishes that I savored on the course of my trip to Australia and Malaysia:

Soft-boiled Egg

1) Soft-boiled Egg  – This breakfast item is an all-time favorite of mine that was nearly wiped off the face of my memory bank.  I was mildly surprised to be presented this egg dish one morning while staying at my auntie’s place.  This delicately prepared and equally delicate tasting dish speaks of pure simplicity in the ingredient: a fresh golden-yolk egg that is barely cooked.  With a couple of drops of soy sauce and a dash of white pepper, it makes the perfect “sauce” to dunk a piece of toast – the perfect morning bliss for me and for my mother who also shares her love for this.


2) Roast Duck – Walking around various neighborhoods in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, you will notice coffee shops everywhere that cater to the culinary needs of the residents in the vicinity and even to those from other neighborhoods, depending on the reputation of the food.  One such place was this eatery that served roast meats and its renowned Roast Duck.  What made this rendition superb was the complete rendering of the fat from the skin, which made it palatable, and the light seasoning of the flesh that had hints of 5 spice powder.  The accompanying sauces augmented the various flavors and spices found in the meat itself.  It was a good thing we got there just as the shop opened just before the huge crowd it tends to attract.


3) Satay – On my way to meet up with an old college buddy in Kuala Lumpur, I came across a Satay vendor who was cooking these sticks of meat the traditional way, over some coals outdoors.  Although I had a serving of this in Sydney, I was rather disappointed by its lack of charcoal char and the rather weak peanut sauce.  But passing by this sight reminded me of the real flavors of this Malay favorite among Malaysians and others.  If weren’t for dinner plans, I would have taken a seat and placed an order of this sumptuous looking sight.


4) Butter Prawns – This is truly a Malaysian seafood classic.  Unpeeled Prawns are deep-fried until the shell is completely edible.  A topping consisting of whispy bits of egg white fried in butter (hence its name) provides a rich flavor along with its crispy texture.  Slices of chili and curry leaves add the fragrant and spice elements to this dish that takes the dish to another level.  This is a must-order from a good seafood restaurant when in Malaysia, or a Malaysian restaurant anywhere else, like what I had in Melbourne, Australia.


5) Sambal Kacang Panjang/Spiced Longbeans –  Longbeans are a favorite among most Asians for its versatility and taste.  Here it is cooked the Malay way with a spice paste consisting of shallots, dried shrimp and dried chilies.  This condiment adds the spice heat and flavor elements to the rather bland vegetable that can hold up to some serious wok searing. The addition of fried dried whitebait fish (Ikan Bilis) brings a contrasting textural element to the softer vegetables as well as additional flavor to this already flavor-packed dish.  Love my veggies cooked this way.


6) Char Tau Kueh –  This Hokkien breakfast item cannot be classified as a noodle or rice dish although the main starch is made from rice flour that have been mixed with water and steamed until it has firmed up.  It is then cut into square pieces and wok seared with garlic, egg, beansprouts, and dried pickled vegetables. The bits of rice cake are rather bland but the addition of soy sauce and the pickles add the necessary flavorings to this dish.  This is one of my favorite breakfast dishes my mum would buy from the local morning market, and I glad I savored it a couple of times on this trip.

Fresh Tofu SaladFresh Tofu Salad –  Malaysians have a penchant for tofu, especially in the fresh form.  Staying at my auntie’s place in Kuala Lumpur, I was presented this cold dish for dinner which was served in my parents home weekly especially on our meatless Fridays.  It is soft fresh tofu that is topped with oyster and dark soy sauces, aromatic crispy fried shallot rings and topped with some green onions, and/or coriander leaves like how I prepare it.  This is truly a refreshing vegan dish and a true study of flavor and textural contrast.


8) Assam Fish – this dish was already featured in the previous blog, but I wanted to show that in Malaysia, it is common to serve the fish whole with the head and eyeballs intact.  Most Asians are suspicious of restaurants that do not serve the fish in its entirety thus this common practice.  For most Westerners, this can be rather off-putting with the huge eyeballs staring at you especially when the head is pointing towards such eater at the dinner table.

DSC_0624.jpg9) Tofu Mixed Vegetables – For most Malaysians, a meal would be incomplete if a dish made with fresh vegetables is not ordered.  One of my favorite way of having the greens cooked is with a light sauce and with some fried tofu bits.  The frying of the tofu firms up the soy cakes and provides a rougher texture on the outside.  The addition of Chinese mushroom adds a depth in flavor to the sauce and a “meaty texture” to the quickly cooked and crunchy vegetable pieces.  This is Vegan Heaven here.


10) Hor Chien/Oyster Pancake – When I was visiting my parents in Melbourne, we stopped at one of the many Malaysian eateries that dot their residential area – yes, they are never lacking in this culinary department.  One of the specials for that day was a dish that I had not eaten for many years – Hor Chien.  It is basically fresh small oysters that are fried in an egg/flour batter until the outside is slightly crispy and the interior still quite soft.  The obligatory sour chili sauce provides the necessary foil to cut through the richness of this seafood pancake.  This brings back memories of eating this during my childhood at seafood restaurants when my father used to take us back to his hometown in Melaka.

Sambal Bendi/Okra/Lady's Fingers11) Sambal Bendi/Okra – Here, we have Okra, or Lady’s Finger as it is known in Malaysia, which in this case, has been cooked the same way as the above Longbean dish, with a chili spice paste that adds tremendous flavors to this mild vegetable.  The secret to cooking this dish is to wok sear it very quickly so that the high heat cooks the okra bits while maintaining a slight crunch at the end.  As a child, I would pick these “lady’s fingers” growing in the backyard for this dish.  This is definitely not the slimy version that most Americans are used to and have an aversion for.

As you can see from this blog and the previous one, Malaysian Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner1, the food is a reflection of the bounty in a tropical climate: the abundance of seafood in its surrounding waters, the meat and poultry that are never lacking of feed around them, vegetables, herb and spices that grow without much effort that add the necessary fiery and flavorful complexity to the delicious dishes. With the influences of various culinary traditions arriving together at this intersection, the result is fresh food that is cooked in an unlimited number of ways that produce an amazing array of temptations. Resistance is just futile around this part of the world.