Steamboat. A soup base, simmering away on a burner at the table, that you use to cook bite sized morsels of food to your own taste.
There are a number of ways of ordering steamboat. A la carte selection of ingredient options is certainly one way – the wait staff bring the food to you at the table along with the soup stock.
Here in Singapore the steamboat buffet is popular – you choose your soup base (normally spicy/Tom Yum or plain chicken stock) and go to the buffet line to select what you would like to eat. Some places allow split soup varieties – the one below has a spicy and a plain stock so that diners can decide which stock they want to use. I’m told anything up to five different varieties are possible inside one pan with dividers at some places – the most I have seen personally is three, but one spicy/one savoury suits me just fine.
In the hawker centers here there is usually at least one place offering a mini steamboat, but steamboat buffet tends to be in one cafe/restaurant area rather than in a shared space.
I’ve been to several steamboat buffets here in Singapore. The usual price is SGD20 a head – some places throw in all you can drink iced lemon tea/lime juice at that price, and some do not. The quality and quantity of ingredients tends to vary also – it is fair to say that some are more generous than others when it comes to protein choices (for example one place might have abundant shrimp and baby clams, pork and chicken ready sliced and piled high – but the place next door may not).
Diners make up their own dipping sauces – and again, the quality and availability of dipping sauce ingredients varies between establishments.
The stock gets depleted as the diners dip into it throughout the meal, and the flavour gets more and more intense with the passing of time. I have to say that the stock at the end of the meal can be very hard to pass up – it can be the best soup ever.
So where can I recommend based on my own experience? There are two places that stand out for me:
- New Bridge Road, Chinatown – get off the bus at CK department store on the main Chinatown/Smith Street side and walk one block to the right – I would give you the name but it is listed in Chinese Look for the red awning and the tables with steamboat burners in the middle.
- Beach Road, Bugis – walk from Bugis MRT through Bugis Junction and up Liang Seah St. Turn right onto Beach Rd, past the first steamboat place on the corner, and go to the second one next door. As an aside, the place one further along to the right has an excellent duck rice – tasty and cheap too.
Like several other Singaporean food experiences, the dining at a local steamboat buffet is very hands-on – you select the soup, you select the fish/pork/chicken/beef/shrimp/clams/crab/mussels/spinach/noodles/fish balls/tofu/mushrooms, you select the dipping sauce, and cook it for as little or as long as you like. The fun is in seeking the perfect combination of flavours to suit your own taste.