Oct 052012
 

Congee, if you’ve never had it, is a rice porridge. Rice (traditionally the broken rice not suitable for stir frying) is boiled into a mushy gruel. Which sounds terrible to Western ears, I know, but trust me, it can be very tasty.

The theory goes that agitating rice releases starches that cause the grains to stick together – and if you’re making a porridge out of it, get a head start by using already cracked grains.

I have to say that I have been a fan of congee for a very long time. My father made a form of it for his breakfast every so often when I was in my early teens, and I would join him in enjoying it.

Singaporeans enjoy their rice porridge with a variety of additives – some as simple as chopped shallots and a little soy, shredded ginger, fresh chili or sesame oil, others add frog legs, crabs, fish, and stinky (fermented) tofu. I’ve also seen porridge with BBQ meats added – pork, duck, and chicken.

For myself, I find it hard to beat a chicken or fish congee with a little sesame oil and some dried onion. I know that Westerners aren’t supposed to like savory food for breakfast traditionally, but I always have – the thought of sitting down to a bowl of corn flakes or nutrigrain swimming in milk is just not appetising at all.

So what makes a good congee? For me, it should not be too thin – watery gruel is, well, watery gruel, and as unappetising as that sounds. And supplied with the right additives – a little animal protein of some kind, some salt, some soy, a sprinkle of chopped fresh or fried spring onion.

And here is the crazy thing – the Colonel actually makes a decent and edible chicken breakfast congee. I present the KFC rice porridge:

Oct 022012
 

One of my long time favourites here is the Braised Beef Noodle Soup at Din Tai Fung.

Braised Beef Noodle Soup, Din Tai Fung, Singapore
What sets it apart? For me, it is the well flavoured rich broth and rich chunks of very soft beef. The beef is sinewy – but cooked until the sinews are soft and break apart easily (yet add a wonderful texture). I like to enhance the flavour slightly with a little vinegar and shredded ginger. At SGD11++ it is also good value – I’m still trying to find one in a cheaper hawker centre that tastes as good :)

Din Tai Fung has outlets across the island and in many other parts of the world – if you get to one of their places, and you are fond of beef, please give this dish a try. If you want the flavour with fewer calories, they also serve a version without the beef chunks.

Oct 012012
 

This is a Steamed Pork Big Pau from my local Hokee outlet:

Note that the walls of the pau above are uneven, and that it has a generous amount of filling – these are the hallmarks of a hand made pau.

I sometimes disparage machine made supermarket pau. The mass produced ones are cheaper than the hand made variety, and the taste is really not that bad – nowhere as bad as the difference, say, between a McDonalds flavour free burger and a really good steak. But if you want to try a good pau, the best that you can find, go to a HDB coffee shop or a chain of local pau makers like Hokee.

I have to say that my current breakfast favourite at home is Hokee’s big pau – they have a dozen outlets all over the island, including Tampines Mall nearby.

Individual vendors aside, there are many varieties of pau to try in Singapore – my favourites are:

  • Char Sui: BBQ pork in a sauce
  • Tar Sau: sweet yam paste (brown or a surprising purple in colour)
  • Chicken: usually a ball of minced chicken that holds together like a dumpling inside the dough.
  • Big: Big Pau are, well, big,  usually minced pork and or chicken inside, and usually contain half an egg (sometimes a whole egg, halved).

You’ll notice the word “usually” in this post – the different combinations of main ingredient, flavouring, additions, and dough texture are quite numerous. The meat (or vegetables, as there are vegetarian versions) may be minced fine or chopped coarsely, there may be eggs included, the eggs may be of the ordinary hard-boiled variety or century/tea eggs, the dough may be plain or flavoured/coloured, and so on.

Eating pau, especially a good juicy Big Pau, can get messy – the ingredients move about as the dough gets smaller, and the juice will drip – not a task to be undertaken lightly if wearing a white shirt with a silk tie :)

If I am heating pau at home I prefer to use a bamboo steamer like the one shown above. These can be obtained from BHG department stores for SGD16 – the size they carry fits perfectly into a 9 inch saucepan, and comes with two trays. I think that if it is good enough for hawker centre dumpling vendors and Din Tai Fung to use bamboo, then it is quite good enough for me :) I am on my second bamboo steamer now, the first one served me well for close to a year before unraveling completely. The trick with using them is to provide sufficient water such that it doesn’t boil dry, but not so much water that it bubbles up into the pau. A word of advice – steam is hot, and the bamboo steamer gets very hot too.

There would be few food courts or coffee shops on the island that did not have someone providing pau. Find one, grab a cup of Teah O to wash it down, and enjoy.

Sep 252012
 
Sep 202012
 

Durian. The King of Fruit. A fruit that has, well, an unpleasant odour. Some say it reeks of the manure of a fruit eating bird, others liken it to the stomach contents of unwell monkeys.  To me, the aroma brings to mind a mixture of baby vomit and bubble gum. All agree that it is a powerful scent – which is why it is banned from all public transport here, and many civilised eateries. Despite the smell, I really do enjoy the taste – it is hard to describe exactly, but to me it is like the best parts of honeydew melon and very ripe mango combined, then multiplied a dozen fold.

Find a coffee shop or a hawker centre and you’ll often find the durian seller nearby – sometimes with their own tables and chairs, a respectful distance from other eateries. You can literally just follow your nose :)

Here, the durian vendor at the Queen Street end of the Bugis Street Market is grading a new batch of fruit by ripeness and quality:

There are many ways of eating The King of Fruits – I’ve enjoyed it in the following forms (I am sure there are others)

  • fresh cut while you wait by a durian stall vendor
  • already cut in a foam tray from the durian stall or supermarket
  • preparations of it in desserts – the dessert stall in the middle of the Lau Par Sat hawker centre does a decent durian chendol
  • freshly juiced – two places close to where I lived in Bugis would juice durian on request (with only a little grimace on the face of the person working the blender) :)
  •  in moon cakes – I have to say that the conventional double yolk lotus paste mooncake does not appeal to me as much as the durian snowskin variety

Opinions are divided amongst my Singaporean friends over durian – regardless of age, cultural background or gender, some love it and some certainly do not. For me, access to fresh durian is one of the many side benefits of life in this part of the world – and I hope to continue to enjoy it for many years to come.

Sep 192012
 

In the DeHappy Seafood Penang post I talked about Singapore as a base for weekends away – and it is one of the things that makes working and living here very special. People love living here – but they love getting away for the weekend as well.

The Rock Bar, Ayana Resort, Bali

Sunset from The Rock Bar, Ayana Resort, Bali

Most of South East Asia really is only an hour or two away by jet – Melaka, Penang and Kuala Lumpur are only an hour away. Sabah/Sarawak/Brunei/Phuket/Bali/Jakarta/Ho Chi Minh City are two or less. Stretch that to a three hour flight and you can get to Cebu/Clark/Manila in the Philippines, and it is not much further to Hong Kong or Sri Lanka – all with regular direct flights. Some destinations require transfers and these can place an otherwise desirable area out of reach for a weekend trip (an example is Boracay in the Philippines – one of the nicest places I’ve been but a little far away for a weekend trip – to be the subject of another blog post).

Fort Santiago, Manila

Fort Santiago, Intramuros, Manila

The pressure from many budget airlines operating in the region tends to keep flight prices low, especially if you keep an eye out for special offers and book well in advance. Competition for the cheaper fares is intense anywhere near a public holiday here, and getting the best deal requires some planning. Expedia has a weekend getaway finder that includes some popular regional destinations.

Tour Boats, Phi Phi Island near Phuket, Thailand

Phi Phi Island, near Phuket, Thailand

My strongest advice is to check independent reviews before booking any hotel – I got burnt on a Penang hotel once because I only looked at the hotel website (and the reality was very substandard). In this case, the Internet is definitely your friend – anywhere you might go has probably been reviewed or blogged about before. And please talk to people here – providing holiday and food advice (when sought) is a passion for many Singaporeans, and it is a good way to get to know your colleagues and neighbours.

Street Life, Penang, Malaysia

Street scene, Penang, Malaysia

In this blog I will share my experiences of the food in these regional getaway spots – hopefully you will see something you like. I promise to link those posts back to here so that it is more about food than my tourist happy-snaps :)

Sep 182012
 

In the post on Fish Head Curry I mentioned that Muthu’s also does a very good centerpiece dish – a Tandoori Fish Head. They face some stiff competition in the Indian fine dining space along Race Course Road from the likes of Gayatri and Banana Leaf Apolo. This dish is one of the ways that they stand out.

Tandoori Fish Head, Muthu's, Little India, Singapore

Muthu’s has a lot going for it – a very good Fish Head Curry, a wide variety of other food options, good service, and a glassed in tandoor oven area – the tandoor (a clay circular pit oven) provides interesting entertainment. Observing a skilled chef placing naan bread in a tandoor is quite something, and the guys at Muthu’s are quite good natured about having an audience.
The Tandoori Fish Head takes 20 minutes to prepare and cook – this provides time to soak up the atmosphere, some other dishes or snacks, and a Kingfisher beer or two.
The Fish Head arrives, served with mint chatni and tamarind sauce, to the admiring comments of those that have not seen this dish before. The meat is slightly crisped on the outside from the tandoor – but soft and succulent tasty on the inside. The tandoori marinade is spicy enough without being overpowering.
Before long, it is gone. If you think that there cannot be a lot of meat on a fish head, just compare this “meal’s end” photo with the one above:

Tandoori Fish Head at Meal's End, Muthu's, Little India, Singapore
This is one of my must try recommendations for anyone interested in Indian food in Singapore – alongside the vegetarian dosa and the humble roti prata, it is one of my favourite things to eat here.

Sep 122012
 

In the Singapore episode of No Reservations, food writer and TV personality Anthony Bourdain mentioned that he’d been booed at an event for avoiding chicken rice here – a mistake I never wanted to make personally. Day two in Singapore saw me finding a hawker centre and trying the chicken rice. I won’t mention the establishment but I have to say that it was nothing special – the rice was, well, rice, and the chicken had been steamed to near tastelessness. The only condiment offered was a chili sauce that didn’t really help. It was not as good as the chicken rice I remembered from East Malaysia days at all.

I asked around, and noted that several people mentioned Wee Nam Kee Chicken Rice amongst others (including the famous Tian Tian Chicken Rice at Maxwell Food Centre that Mr Bourdain covered in his show). A week later I was perusing my newly purchased copy of the Makansutra Guide and noticed that Wee Nam Kee had a very good writeup – and that it was on Thomson Road, close to where a group of us were staying at the time in Novena. A posse was duly organised, and off we went.

This is a daytime shot from a later trip – to be honest, the chickens move through the restaurant onto the plate too fast at night to see this many hanging in the window:

Anyhow, back to my first experience at Wee Nam Kee. Encouraged by a Chinese Australian colleague, I mixed vinegar, chili and ginger together to make a proper sauce for the chicken before setting to:

The taste was a very pleasant surprise – the chicken is flavoursome, the rice properly rich with chicken stock (and I suspect, a little chicken fat to give it a very pleasing mouth feel). That is the secret, I am told – care in preparation of both the chicken and the rice adds flavour, making the difference between the ordinary and the truly great chicken rice.

I have been back several times since – and with all respect to Tian Tian and the many other fine chicken rice establishments in Singapore, it remains my favourite.  Apart from the taste and quality of the food, it is a pleasure to sit and watch the uncle skillfully break chicken carcases (steamed and roast) down in a matter of seconds with a large cleaver – he never misses a beat – a master at work.

Sep 082012
 

Growing up in Canberra meant that I had the opportunity to eat a lot of Vietnamese food. There was a cliche in Australia at one stage that a country town was not really home unless it had a pub or two and a Chinese restaurant – growing up in the 1970s this was still pretty much the case – these places usually served what the customers expected in the way of a westernised/training wheels version of Cantonese food – Beef in Black Bean Sauce, Sweet and Sour Pork, Spring Rolls, Fried Rice, Honey Prawns, Wan Ton soup – a cuisine all of its own. Some of these places are still there, and I used to seek them out every so often for a trip down memory lane into “small Aussie town Westernised Cantonese”. I’ve since – thankfully – been introduced to the delights of real Cantonese food, and many other authentic Chinese cuisines. But I digress.

Milk Coffee – Long Phung Restaurant

My local “Asian” restaurant growing up in 1970s Canberra at one stage was the Vietnam Village Inn at the Page shops. The owner (Van from memory) was a very patient man, explaining Vietnamese cuisine to a whole generation of people hitherto unfamiliar with authentic non-Western food. I remember my mother telling my siblings and I that it was like Chinese food only Vietnamese – just a little different to what we were used to and that we would like it. I loved it.

As an adult, I grew accustomed to the wonders of Banh Xeo (Vietnamese Crepes) and Steamed Duck Noodle soup at Can Tho Restaurant (Belconnen), and Garlic Rice, Ginger Chicken and Red Cooked Beef at Tu Do (O’Connor) – and many fine dishes besides.

Steamed Duck Noodle, Can Tho Restaurant, Belconnen, Australia

I have to say that I missed this level of taste and quality on first coming to Singapore, and eventually put it out of mind after some bad food court experiences. Eventually, though, the craving returned. The answer was, apparently, Little Vietnam.

We researched the Little Vietnam area and talked to friends about their preferences (a good thing to do in Singapore). My thanks to the Twice As Delicious crew for their excellent overview of Joo Chiat Road and the associated follow on posts – they were very helpful.

We started at the Geylang end of Joo Chiat Road – where the eateries and supply shops are very much Malay/Muslim rather than Vietnamese. As an aside, I am a big fan of Malay food and will be going back to this area for it on another trip – and to take in the nearby Geylang Serai centre. On this trip we were looking for Vietnamese food, so we kept walking.

Another couple of minutes walk and we saw our first Vietnamese cafe – but we’d decided that our first stop was to be the popular Long Phung Restaurant. Apart from the Twice As Delicious mention, Long Phung has an 89% approval rating on Hungry Go Where with over a hundred votes (a solid recommendation).

Long Phung immediately felt familiar to me – it brought back happy memories of Sunday lunch at Can Tho in Belconnen – the smell of rich Pho broth, fish sauce and chili – the only sound softly spoken Vietnamese.

This is the Spicy Beef Noodle Soup at Long Phung – rich soup broth, tender chunks of brisket, fresh herb flavour, hot with pepper and chili. The smell was delicious and the taste better. This was why I came – this is the quality of Vietnamese food I was missing:

We also tried the Pork Chop Noodle:

The Pork Chop Noodle was OK – not as intense as the Spicy Beef Noodle, but certainly better than you’d find in a food court somewhere else. Overall, my rating for Long Phung is “Love it, will go back” :)

We wandered back up Joo Chiat Road and had a second look – there are a number of other eateries there worth a try (and a mention in future posts).

Next, we went to the Little Vietnam Restaurant Cafe. It is at 511 Guillemard Road, just off Geylang Road (and noticeably closer to the in/famous red light area there). This place also featured in a post from the Twice As Delicious folks – the food and the beverage selection gets a good mention there. It has a 69% approval rating on Hungry Go Where.

I have to say that I was disappointed there were no steamed snails available – for a place that opens at 4PM to have run out of an ingredient by 5:30PM seemed a little hard to believe, but it is possible. Regardless, there was indeed beer.

Because we started with beer, we ordered the mixed finger food – deep fried chunks of fish ball and sausage:

The taste of the finger food was, well, OK. I’m not sure what I was expecting, to be fair. Comparing the same price (SGD5) to the excellent Spicy Beef Noodle that I’d had at Long Phung, the finger food was in second place.

We also ordered the spring rolls:

The spring rolls were not great – they were about on par taste (very subtle) and texture (somewhat soggy) wise with my earlier food court experiences. Perhaps there are regional variations in Vietnam that I was never exposed to as an Australian, and this is just how spring rolls are done (note to self: must get to Vietnam ASAP to investigate this!).

Things improved dramatically – dessert was a shared plate of excellent creamy sweet Banana Sago:

I still yearned for more – I wanted to experience something remarkable from Little Vietnam Restaurant. I ordered the Garlic Cockles (look for “crockles” in the menu). We could here them rattling around in a wok shortly thereafter.

The cockles were simply awesome. Juicy, flavoursome, the taste and the sight and the smell fresh and delicious. Whatever disappointments there were from earlier in the meal disappeared.

Over all, I’d have to say that while there were some small disappointments, the Little Vietnam area is an excellent food safari destination. I’ll go back to Long Phung for sure, and sample more of their menu – and go back to the Little Vietnam Restaurant for the cockles and (fingers crossed) the snails.

Sep 062012
 

It’s fair to say that one of the reasons I came to Singapore was the laksa. Katong, not far from where I now live, is one of the stated birth places of this wonderfully rich spicy curry noodle soup.

For those of you that have never enjoyed laksa because by accident of birth and circumstance you find yourself in the wrong hemisphere, I truly apologise. For those that have been to a food court somewhere and had a tepid mess of overcooked underfresh noodles in a bleak dirty water tinned curry paste broth, I also apologise. You’ve missed out.

Let me start by saying that I know that there are many varieties of laksa, and each of these has a number of names…these names, in turn, often prepended by “The Authentic…”, “The Original…”, or some other title. Given that there is so much controversy on what this laksa or that laksa is actually called, it is not possible to describe it without contradicting one expert or another – and in doing so, cause offense. That said, if I am going to talk about my own laksa journey, I need to define it in my own terms so you’ll know what I am talking about. I am a simple soul, and divide all laksa I’ve experienced to date into two main groups:

  • The curry soup with coconut milk in it (Laksa Lemak, Katong Laksa, call it what you will – I’ll stick to the generic Bahasa Melayu “Laksa Lemak” – lemak meaning “fat” or “rich”) – basically, take some hot stock, add curry/shrimp paste, add coconut milk/coconut cream, add noodles of some description, throw in some veggies and one or more of shrimp/pork/beef/chicken. Laksa leaf (Vietnamese Mint or Duan Laksa) is optional in some locations. Add spongy fried tofu, sprinkle with fried shallots/onions, and serve.
  • The curry soup without coconut milk in it, usually fish based (Assam Laksa, Laksa Penaeng) – basically, take a fish (usually a Mackarel), boil it until the bones are soft, smoosh fish (bones and all) up into a paste, add a souring agent (lime, calimansi, and/or tamarind pulp) and some curry paste (but no coconut milk). Add noodles, maybe some veggies, sometimes some tofu, and serve.

My first Laksa Lemak experience was at the Dickson Asian Noodle House, in the late 1990s. This family run restaurant is in a suburb in Canberra, Australia, not far from where I grew up. Spicy, rich, tasty, delicious, more-ish, pick an adjective, it was that and more. A hot flavoursome curry soup, rich coconut base, noodles, bits of chicken pork and duck, slightly crunchy choi sum, big triangles of fried tofu soaking up the curry sauce goodness. It changed me. I went back there many times, and still miss it.

To my shame, I only have one picture of a Dickson Asian Noodle House Laksa Lemak available to me here in Singapore – the rest are on hard drives in storage back in Australia. This is a Duck Laksa at meal’s end:

 

The picture above does no justice to the spicy creaminess of the curry broth and the rich flavour of the slices of duck meat. I enjoyed many laksas at Dickson (mostly duck or vegetable with extra tofu) over the next ten plus years.

I’ve also had Laksa Lemak since in Singapore, Malaysia (West and East), Thailand, and the US. With apologies, I have to say that I am still looking for a better one than I had in Canberra – the richness of the coconut milk/cream and the intensity of flavour are not quite there. I’ll keep looking – but please, if you have a favourite, leave a comment and let me know.

As for Assam Laksa… I’ve enjoyed that in many places too – but the best I have had is the one in the Air Hitam Wet Market, Penang, Malaysia. Apart from the garlic and black bean crab (post to follow), it was the standout highlight of the weekend in Penang a month back. We asked our driver/guide Mr Choong to take us to the best Assam Laksa in Penang – he took us to Air Hitam, away from the tourist bustle of Georgetown and the coastal beach resort areas.  Note the price – MYR3.50 is about SGD1.30, and around AUD/USD1.

The laksa stand is on the edge of one of the busy vehicle traffic areas inside the wet market – and if you want to get a picture of the uncle spooning the rich fish curry into bowls of noodles, be careful (the drivers do not stop for tourists) :)

What is the taste? Sour, spicy, fishy, golden wonderful curry goodness. In it’s own distinct way, this is the Assam Laksa equivalent to the Dickson Asian Noodle House Laksa Lemak.These two best in breed examples share an intensity of flavour, a kind of no holes barred intensity, a fantastic balance of flavour and chili heat – things that I really admire.

I’m not suggesting that you get on a plane to Penang tomorrow, but if you are in the region, it is absolutely worth a visit. I’ve got a post planned on my impressions of Penang as a food tourism destination, and will talk about it more then.

You can see the gleam of bright red chili oil in the shot above – also the chopped shallots and rich black mackerel curry. It may be a little salty for some, but this is the style of the thing and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I opted for larger noodles – they also sell it there with smaller noodles (I’m guessing rice vermacelli – hopefully I’ll get to find out next trip). This shot shows the noodles and some of the other ingredients that were hidden lower down in the bowl.

So… the quest for the perfect Laksa Lemak continues. And I will absolutely be going back to Penang for more of that Assam Laksa from Air Hitam. And I hope, in time, to find more regional variants to be cataloged and described (but above all, enjoyed).