Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A little bit of nostalgia

nostalgia (nŏ-stăl'jə, nə-): A bittersweet longing for things, persons, or situations of the past.
Hainanese Chicken Rice - a dish that has been the centrepiece of Singapore's culinary history for as long as anyone can remember. It is often the single dish that foreigners associate Singapore with, which is surprising given the simplicity of its composition - Boiled chicken, garlic and ginger flavoured rice, and a bowl of clear broth.

Given the popularity of this humble dish, there are literally thousands of eateries that specialise in it. And as with anything that has been around this long, chicken rice has evolved over time to cater to the tastes of discerning consumers (see previous blog on Hawkernomics). My favourite chicken rice places in Singapore serve a moist, just cooked chicken with smooth (almost slippery) chicken skin a result of dipping the boiled chicken in iced water immediately after cooking. The rice is always fragrant, with strong notes of garlic and the chicken stock its cooked in. Chilli dipping sauces (because condiments are a major part of this dish) are laced with lime juice and often include a blend of chilli padi for an extra kick.
And so, it was with some reservation that I decided to try the chicken rice at one of Singapore's oldest establishments, Yet Con, located on Purvis Street (a few blocks down from Raffles Hotel). This Hainanese restaurant is as old school as they come. Serving the same dishes since 1940, walking into this humble diner was like a blast into the past. An elderly man who looks like he's a permanent fixture sits in his favourite corner, sipping his tea. The owner sits placidly by the cashier till which consists of an abacus and a wooden table with pull out drawers for storing the day's earnings. Marble table tops that have stood the test of time are garnished by plastic crockery in red and orange. You can't help but respect this place which has seen many generations of Singaporeans come and go.
I ordered the chicken rice (of course) and sat and waited, admiring the jam jars filled with chilli and ginger dipping sauces. Before long, the waitress brought out a bowl of rice and a big bowl of soup. A plate of chicken on top of chopped cucumber arrived separately and I was ready to tuck in.
To be perfectly honest, this dish was not well executed. For one, the chicken (breast meat was served) was overcooked. Judging from this and the lack of the usual silky smooth skin, the chicken was not dunked in ice cold water to stop the cooking process. What was absent was also the usual sesame oil and soy dressing that is usually drizzled over the chicken, which just highlighted how dry the meat was. On to the condiments, the chilli dipping sauce was uninspiring - it was slightly sweet and only sour from the addition of rice vinegar which lacks the dimension that lime juice adds. Simply put, it lacked the gutzpah I look for in this condiment.

But the rice and accompanying soup won me over. The garlic and ginger flavoured rice here has an appeal that is completely unpretentious and screams home cooked nostalgia. It does not give the instant flavour hit that many successful chicken rice places here provide but it does trigger a part of your memory that remembers the way things were (or how they used to taste at least). The soup was a simple clear chicken broth that had its flavour amped up by the addition of preserved salted vegetables and a generous amount of fresh coriander. These two offerings were sincere and had a strange calming quality about them - definitely food for the soul.

As I paid for my meal and made my way out, I realised that great food doesn't always have to taste... well, great. Sometimes, the sincerity in its preparation and the respect of a dish's tradition does shine through and that in itself is pretty special. This place definitely does not have the best chicken rice that I've tasted, but its going to be one I'll remember... if only for old time's sake.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Yum! Cha

Yum Cha, as the name suggests, involves the drinking of tea with a meal accompanied by morsels of dumplings, pastries and the like. I have come to realise that in contrast to other cultures, Chinese families in general (and I say this to avoid offending the innocent) are impatient when it comes to food. We want it fresh, we want it piping hot and we want it now. I honestly believe that eating habits of the Chinese family were the inspiration behind the title of the highly successful "Fast and Furious" movies.
But why? After much careful thought and research (mostly through observation of my own family), I have boiled it down to this:
(1) Chinese people are pragmatists. We are in love with the synopsis, the bottom line, the gist of it all. Forget emotion, fuzzy feelings and little puppy dogs... why bother with detail when all it does is take up precious time for other (often money making or spending) activities? Hence, the restaurant meal is just that - a meal to sample the food prepared by a chef, not for conversation... and definitely not for waiting for food to arrive.

(2) We lead boring lives - due to reason (1), it is more likely than not that Chinese families do not undertake common interests in the arts, music or the finer things in life. And since these are topics that often facilitate lengthy discussions, we find that meal conversations are often short and sharp (just the way we like it)... and why hasn't the food arrived anyway?

3) We heart industrialisation (a little too much) - Being firm believers in the principles of mass production and economies of scale, we expect things to be completed in the shortest required time. Efficiency is respected... and anything less is... well, inefficient. This is why despite China having such a long culinary history, it was the Italians, not us, that initiated the slow food movement. Go figure.

But back to yum cha. Whilst not widely documented, my theory is that this form of dining was invented by the fast and furious Chinese to feed their passion for having things instantly. Dim sum is traditionally pre-prepared, steamed/deep friend/braised, and then transported around the restaurant floor on trolleys to hungry and eager patrons. The Chinese have made this such an efficient process that the ordering part of the restaurant experience is cut out completely and all that is required is to see what we want, grab it, and pay for it later (how's that for fast food).

But more and more, the concept of slow dim sum such is becoming a more popular alternative. As compared to pre-prepared and cooked items, the selection is made to order and served course by course. Despite my roots, I must admit I much prefer this form of dining. You get to take a breather, savour each dish and reflect. And hence, a Sunday lunch at Hua Ting located in Orchard Hotel was as close to a family zen gathering as I could get.

This highly awarded Chinese restaurant is renowned for its delicate dim sum, and other Cantonese favourites. We had, amongst other dishes, mango chicken tarts, scallop and abalone crystal dumplings, a Cantonese mixed roast platter, and of course, their famous shark cartilage soup with fish noodles. Each dish was excellent (with the exception of the chicken tarts which I found a tad too sweet) and I particularly enjoyed the soup noodles which was composed of a milky, gelatinous soup served with handmade fish paste noodles, cod fish and bittergourd - Great comfort food.
So next time you're having yum cha, do exactly that... enjoy the tea, savour the food, and most importantly, appreciate the company... no matter how long you have to wait.

Saturday, May 24, 2008


Singaporeans are a tough crowd - and this rings especially true when it comes to good food. I have come to learn that just about everyone in this bustling metropolis is a critic. Just ask a small group of locals where to sample the best chicken rice or char kway teow and you will ignite a heated discussion often only seen in parliamentary debates in other countries.
Add to the fact that this little island is filled with thousands of eateries and food stalls hawking popular Singaporean street fare - and good ol' economics kicks in - the consumer becomes king and street food is unbelievably cheap courtesy of a competitive market. Compare this situation to my adopted hometown of Perth in Western Australia where only a handful of restaurants serve South East Asian street food. Coupled with a large immigrant population and locals who have learnt to love hawker food and you end up with a a plate of char kway teow beinh charged at around AUD8 (approx 11 SGD). But that's not all - the quality is often lacking even at this price and for some reason - it just ain't quite the same... and yet, the consumer with a lack of choice still forks out willingly for mediocrity.

But back here in Singapore where the consumer reigns supreme, we get the other extreme - even at low prices (around 3 SGD) for an average hawker dish, consumers are critical of the quality of what gets served to them - and they're not afraid to show it by voting with their feet. It took me a while to get used to this mindset - that paying what would purchase half a cup of coffee in Australia for a full meal which has been painstakingly prepared, somehow still entitles you to an opinion on whether it was worth the money.
In a competitive market, the average hawker finds ways to beat the competition by feeding the critical consumer something different to set themselves apart - and thus differentiation is born. Seemingly regular long time favourites of this island are given a twist either by method of preparation or addition of an unconventional ingredient. Some of these remind us not to fix something that ain't broken - others succeed and reap the rewards from their efforts.
Zhong Yu Wanton Mein located in the Tiong Bahru hawker centre (#02-30) is a great example of the latter. As with most hawker stalls in Singapore, this stall specialises only in one dish, being Hong Kong style Wanton Mein (with soy chicken and char siew variations). Starting at $2.50 per serve, this seemingly humble dish includes hongkong style thin egg noodles, char siew and boiled choy sum, all smothered with a delicious home made broth. Oh did I forget to mention that you get a bowl of clear soup with handmade wantons as well?
"What did that boring lesson on Hawkernomics have anything to do with this?" I hear you almost scream. Well, our lesson today has not only helped us to explain why this meal is so cheap, but also revealed the reason for the perpetual long queues at this stall. King consumer lining up for widely available dish = differentiated product. And so I investigated... all in the name of economics.
Biting into the thin egg noodles, I was impressed by how al dente it was and the lack of "gooiness" often found in this dish. Having lined up for 15 minutes gave me the opportunity to observe the owner in action - and witness that he constantly tested every batch of noodles which were briefly cooked and subsequently dunked into a separate vat of hot water to rinse off any excess starch. The firm to bite noodles were then placed on a plate before a clear brown broth (which I imagine to be made from a stock of pork and chicken bones) is poured over. Noodles, being the first element of this dish, gets a big tick.But back to differentiation - what the owner has done to attract such long queues is the char siew. Instead of the thinly pre-sliced variety which is always a tad dry, the owner of this stall only uses meat from the inner leg of Indonesian pork (which he insists is better than the Malaysian and Australian imports more commonly available here) for his char siew. This results in wonderfully marbled meat which is melt in your mouth tender and oh so tasty. Admirable attention to detail and the result - a Char Siew Wanton Mein that is distinct from others and attracts a strong following.
I also decided to try out their sui gow (prawn dumplings) which were very well made. Each handmade dumpling encased minced pork, water chestnuts and a whole succulent prawn. The freshness of the ingredients were evident and capped off an excellent meal - all for under SGD5.
Some may argue that its unfair that for all his efforts and the quality of the Wanton Mein, the owner of this stall probably takes home much less than the average hawker in Australia who serves up an inferior version. But such is life - and who ever said that Hawkernomics was fair?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

When in Singapore...

I had the pleasure of being invited to N's place for a casual lunch on Monday to celebrate a close family friend's birthday. I was told to expect some local Singaporean fare, specifically Hokkien Prawn Mee and Otah. What set this meal apart was that N was inviting her mum's Filipino domestic helper of almost 20 years, D, to prepare the abovementioned dishes. I was intrigued. A Filipino preparing local Singaporean favourites? This I had to eat.

Arriving at N's place slightly before the rest of the guests had arrived, I decided to meet the infamous D and possibly suss out a few recipes from her. D was a lovely person - unassuming, sincere and incredibly passionate once we started talking about food. She revealed that she had always loved cooking and was taught all the tricks of the trade by N's mum who is an amazing self taught cook, specialising in Peranakan dishes stemming from her Straits heritage. N's dad also enjoys hosting dinner parties and as a result, has given D plenty of opportunities to hone her skills and experiment over the years. Such is the popularity of her curries and home made pastes that D has a freezer full of them stored for ready use when the occassion calls.

D's 48 hour otah (named by yours truly because of the length of time it takes to prepare) was steamed rather than barbecued. I was rather sceptical of this at first but a bite into the moist, spicy and extremely moreish mackerel fish cake proved me wrong immediately. The well seasoned otah with a concotion of numerous spices had absorbed the fragrance of the banana leaves perfectly. I also found the steamed version less heavy than your traditional barbecued ones which just means I could probably eat more of this in one sitting!

Just as I was scoffing down my third otah, D brought out her pièce de résistance, the Hokkien Prawn Mee. I knew i was in for a treat when the distinct aroma of the broth wafted into the dining room. A slurp of this rich, complex soup made of chillis (dried, fresh and padi), dried shrimp, candlenuts, belachan, shallots, pork bones and of course, prawn heads confirmed that D knew what she was doing. The accompaniments of rice noodles, egg noodles, beansprouts, kangkong, prawns and melt in your mouth pork ribs added depth to the already addictive stock. Definitely the best Hokkien Prawn Mee I have ever tasted... all this from someone who isn't Hokkien... Sacré bleu!

I was pleasantly surprised at how good the food was... which in turn made me realise that we often undermine the ability for people of a different background and culture to fully embrace another. That somehow your ancestry determines the people you associate with, the religion you choose, the values you uphold and at a more primal level - the food that you enjoy and cook. Humans like to simplify, consolidate, categorise... it helps us understand this confusing world we live in... and as a result, we are all guilty of bigotry in some form or another, albeit to varying degrees. Not convinced? How many of us have walked into a Japanese restaurant and immediately assumed that just because the chef over the sushi counter is not of Japanese descent that the food is going to be less than perfect. On the flipside, a Japanese chef does not necessarily guarantee a great Japanese meal. It is our conditioning that leads us to believe this... and foolishly, we create a self fulfilling prophecy. It seems to me that in this day and age where ignorance, intolerance and exclusivity are so prevalent, we all need a bit of D's Hokkien Prawn Mee as a reminder that we're all not that different and the world can be a better place... one slurp at a time.

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