Califonia Bountiful

Cooking with raisins

Jan./Feb. 2010 California Country magazine

Chef Alexander Ong uses raisins to add an intriguing taste and texture to his recipes.

Chef Alexander Ong says California-grown raisins add an element of surprise to the menu at Betelnut Pejiu Wu, a popular San Francisco restaurant/bar.

To chef Alexander Ong, a raisin is a tiny piece of fruit that makes a mighty big statement.

That's why Ong puts raisins in some of his menu's most unexpected places. Surprises—the kind that turn every bite into a revelation—are what it's all about at Betelnut Pejiu Wu, a bustling restaurant/bar in San Francisco where the Malaysian-born chef melds Asian traditions with fresh, local ingredients.

His Thai egg salad is one such example.

“If you were to go to Thailand, you wouldn't be getting raisins in this salad. But we found that when you add raisins, it pops in your mouth with every bite,” Ong said. “The balance between the sweet from the raisins and the acid from the dressing and the saltiness from the fish sauce—plus the fun herbs and the contrast of temperatures—all of those factors work together so that every mouthful you take is like mini-explosions of flavor. It's like wow, wow, wow!”

Ong displays a creativity and exuberance that leaves no doubt as to why the San Francisco Chronicle recognized him earlier in his career as a Rising Star Chef. He has headed Betelnut Pejiu Wu for about a decade.

Ong describes a pejiu wu as an Asian beer house, traditionally where dock workers, butchers, farmers and other blue-collar workers would gather for small plates of highly flavored foods that pair well with beer. Betelnut carries on that tradition in a decidedly white-collar setting.

Other flavor-rich foods on Betelnut's menu that get a little “wow” from raisins include chile-spiced prawns, tamarind glazed chicken wings, green papaya salad and deep-fried cauliflower—the latter inspired by a popcorn-like snack Ong ate as a child.

And the perfect beverage to wash it all down? Ong suggests shandy—Pilsner beer sweetened with raisin juice. “It's something totally different, a real surprise.”


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