An interview was conducted with the two owners of Ancient Moon several years ago. At the time, co-owner Lico fell in love with Malaysian chilli pan mee and decided to bring this to Hong Kong, which had won him the support and recognition of many local diners and members of the media. The two rookie restaurateurs weren’t afraid to face the challenges of the F&B industry, and persevered in getting their beloved Singaporean and Malaysian cuisines to take root in their home city.
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Prior to the pandemic, Lico and Fanni were able to fly to Singapore and Malaysia for inspirations to create new dishes; but as travel restrictions were introduced, Lico began doing his research online and watching countless food and cooking videos. He also pulled out notes that he had written during his previous travels. However, innovating new dishes wasn’t even the toughest part. With social unrest and the turmoil of the pandemic, closing the shop had certainly crossed the owners’ minds, as the pandemic had no doubt taken a toll on their business. “During the peak wave, it wasn’t unusual to have zero business in the evening. In the early days [of COVID-19], one of the clusters broke out in the building next door. Local residents were too scared to go out. People who lived outside of the district weren’t travelling over to dine out. We were lucky that our landlord and restaurant team were very helpful and supported us through these tough times together,” says Fanni. “Because of these good things and wonderful people around us, we decided to keep going. We focus on the present moment and do what we can.”
Even though they don’t seem to have any long term plans, serving high-quality food at Ancient Moon is a non-negotiable for Fanni and Lico. With less business during the pandemic, the two have more time to develop new dishes. Just prior to this interview, Ancient Moon released its new menu, with certain dish names featuring some rather amusing Cantonese puns, such as its “Geng Ceng Pork Rice” (geng ceng meaning frightened in Cantonese), “Gu Waak Chicken Rice” (gu waak meaning cheeky, but gu can also mean ancient while waat means smooth) and a vegetarian noodle dish with the name “So Mei Mau Meen” that homophonically means never met before. “We want to make people smile. The last few years haven’t been easy, so we hope that food can bring people joy,” Fanni remarks. Due to the pandemic, many people have been too scared to dine out. “Geng Ceng Pork Rice” has a humorous dish name that reflects the current emotional state of many Hong Kongers, but geng, when spoke in another tone, is also the Cantonese word for neck, so this dish not only features pork jowl paired with sweet and spicy Nyonya curry, but also comes with a side of clever paronomasia.
From left: owners Lico and Fanni, and two restaurant staff who are an integral part of the team. (Photo: 潘小熊)
“So Mei Mau Meen” is Ancient Moon’s latest vegetarian creation. The addition of this vegetarian option also meant extra preparation time for the team. “We don’t use MSG in our dishes, so we need to make different kinds of broths and then adjust the taste depending on the dish,” says Lico. “Our store isn’t big, but we have to make seven different broths per day, which is actually a lot of work. We didn’t have F&B experience prior to opening this restaurant, so it’s a lot of trial and error. During the pandemic, we met a very experienced chef who helped us improve the dining service procedures. This was another reason that kept us in business.” This vegetarian dish is one of the few items on Ancient Moon’s menu that isn’t a Singaporean or Malaysian speciality. The soup base has a touch of mala spicy aroma while the vegetarian broth is light and refreshing, so even meat eaters return for this dish.
Many restaurants have switched to doing takeaway during the pandemic, and Ancient Moon is no exception, but there are things that they’re not willing to compromise on. “Our signature chilli pan mee will only ever be available dine-in. This was the case when dinner service was banned. Lard is mixed in just before serving, and the dish must be consumed immediately. If this dish is to be taken away, the lard would’ve cooled and cannot be stirred and mixed in with the noodles. The taste would also be different. Hence in our latest menu update, we’ve added a spicy lo mein dish—the Malaysian five spice pork shredded duck lo mein—that is more suitable for takeaway,” remarks Lico, who is in charge of developing the dishes. Paired with a house-made sambal sauce, this noodle dish was actually part of Ancient Moon’s staff meal, but customers demanded to try it after discovering this dish, and now it has become part of the restaurant menu. Another dish conceived during the pandemic is the Ikan Goreng deep-fried fish on rice, which is a reinterpretation of Singaporean black pepper crab. Generally, wok-fried black pepper crab tends to be relatively dry, but at Ancient Moon, the black pepper sauce is served with deep-fried fish and white rice. Diners can enjoy the flavour of black pepper crab without the mess that comes with eating crab.
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Hong Kong’s economy is on its way to recovery. When asked whether they look forward to seeing tourists again, Fanni says: “In the past, many tourists come to our restaurant on the recommendation of the Guide. We tried chatting with them and told them our list of places and shops worth visiting. It warmed our hearts to see them return to our store for a repeat visit despite only staying a few days in Hong Kong. This kept us going, and made us want to continuously improve.”
Text and photos by 潘小熊, translated by Iris Wong. Read original article here.