Breaking Bad: late night gorging in Geylang Serai

Breaking Bad: late night gorging in Geylang Serai

Geylang Serai is the “bad boy” of Singapore – a gritty, rough-around-the-edges neighborhood by Singapore standards – which is to say it really isn’t.

If you’ve discussed Singapore’s collection of neighborhoods you’ve undoubtedly heard of Geylang Serai. Geylang (as it’s loosely called) isn’t as tidy and ordered as other parts of Singapore. It’s crowded and bustling with few tall trees shading the busy streets. In the 1840s the island’s Malay population was relocated from the mouth of the Singapore River to this area, transforming if from coconut plantations and lemongrass farms (‘serai’is Malay for ‘lemongrass’) to what is best described as a concreted, 1970s low-rise urbana. Today it’s a densely populated neighborhood of predominantly Malay and Chinese residents and – not least in notoriety – prostitutes.

Read More

G7 Sin Ma Live Seafood - It's not just about the frogs

Frog is a popular meat in Singapore and, like the saying goes, you have to kiss a lot of them to find a prince. G7 Sin Ma Live Seafood in Geylang is one of those princes. Famous for their frog porridge and other frog-realted dishes, it's a typical eating house that has outgrown the usual open corner, plastic table character and has bulged into the storefront across the street and even to the second level. There the dining room is slightly fancier in decor and suitable for a large group such as, in our recent case, a gathering of hungry Makansutra "makankakis." But despite this restaurant's anuran popularity you don't have to kiss a lot of frogs to get royal food here, as evidenced by the exceptional meal that the chef served up.

It started with Scallop & Mango Roll and Dragon Beard Prawns, set on a platter with diced fruit gently tossed in a creamy mayo-based dressing. The hand-spun "beards" encircling the prawns were light and crispy, sweetened by the plump meat of the shellfish within.

Next came Braised Dried & Fresh Fish Maw in a casserole. The contrasting textures of the ingredients, combined with the gentle flavor of the sauce made from the fish's own juices, was savory and delicious and announced to all that this eating house is not just about frog porridge.

Just as we were craving more our waitress whisked in with a plate of Cantonese Roast Duck and Sio Bak pork. The duck was cooked to perfection, not at all dry despite the remarkable caramelization of the skin to a deep, earthen color and a sheen that made our mouths water before we even tasted it. The pork was cut old-school style; chunkier for a full-on meaty experience. The crackling skin was thick and firm, never softening under the air and equally uniform in texture. It delivered a very satisfying, not-too-salty taste. In a sea of roasted meats across Singapore, this ranked near the top.

The food kept coming, and with every dish it got better and better. Like the crisp Aubergine With Chinese Green Beans, jumped up with the complex taste of ikan bilis to give it a curious hint of fish without detracting from the freshness of the veg. The aubergines were like french fries with a bad-ass attitude; a thin crunch on the outside leading to warm creamy flesh in the center and the perfect balance of salt. I never need potato fries again if I

can have these instead. The beans, crisp yet tender were tossed with the perfect balance of garlic and strings of the tiny dried anchovies which added a wondrous mouth feel. It was one of those unexpected dishes that haunts you with its flavor.

The gustatory onslaught continued; slabs of thick, tender Chinese Beef Steak in a thick, robust sauce that clung to the perfectly medium rare meat, so juicy and moist.

Then came what to many was a new experience: Steamed Shark Head. Now before the anti-shark fin establishment clicks away in repugnance it should be stated that this is not actually shark, but rather shovel nose ray - a plentiful creature of the sea. The cartilage, lined with the opaque, gelatinous

flesh which quivered between our chopsticks, gleamed within the pool of soy-based sauce infused with spices, garlic, scallions, fiery chili and -- if detection serves -- a hint of Sichuan peppercorn. While the powerful sauce was on the heavy side for the delicate "meat," obscuring its true, melt-in-your-mouth flavor and texture, it was nevertheless so good that, when the flesh was quickly gone we scooped spoonsful of the sauce onto rice and consumed it all, bringing the meal to a savory crescendo.

To gradually bring us down from our gustatory high the chef served Tai-O Bee Hoon noodles wrapped in Opeh leaf. At first glance its appearance was uninspiring; a bland, bleached pile of noodles with chunks of white meat -- dare I say frog -- and just a suspicion of green pepper and chili. Noodles are often the litmus test that separates a pretty good cook from a great one; that endless challenge to get just the right firmness to the noodle, infusing the flavor of the other ingredients and establishing a moist, almost creamy texture and a hint of wok hei. It's not easy and most never quite achieve it. But contrary to its insipid facade this dish exploded with flavor, delivering a creamy texture to the perfectly soft vermicelli; almost like a great char kway teow, but without the seafood addition. The small chunks of meat were soft and added even more bursts of juicy savoriness to the noodles, set off by the specks of red chili. It was as good a balance of salt, spice, bee hoon taste and meat as one could expect, and made us all agree breathlessly that, "Jeez, can this guy cook!"

But he wasn't finished with us just yet. Following on the heels of the bee hoon was another noodle delight -- Seafood Hor Fun on Opeh Leaf. Completely different from bee hoon, the hor fun noodles were wide and silky, slipping around in the beige sauce swimming with prawns, sliced fish, mushrooms and perfectly cooked fingers of squid. The sauce was slightly viscous and smooth, laden with specks of egg and baby kai lan greens along with a gentle yet pronounced smokiness thanks to the chef's mastery of the art of wok hei. Its comforting warmth and richness transported us closer to the safe and happy kitchen of our childhoods with every bite,

And to seal our palates with a gentle sweetness, a circle of Yam Paste was presented, divided into small bowls. The thick paste delivered a mild sweetness, thinned by the creamy pool in which it sat and setting our taste buds gently down to earth to mark the end of an exceptional meal.

G7 Sin Ma Live Seafood
161 Geylang Road (corner of Lorong 3)
Singapore 389239

Noodling around: KL Style Hokkien Mee at Kong Kee.

On invitation of an esteemed foodie friend I recently foodwalked to Kong Kee Seafood, a corner kopitiam in Geylang. It’s not hard to spot this place – just look for the large, colorful food photos above the two-sided entry, which trail into the outdoor, covered area. Our focus this day was KL style Hokkien Mee; so different from the usual Singapore style, with thicker noodles and a deeper flavor.  The lineup included two variations: the normal KL style hokkien mee and one with freshwater prawns.

The most distinguishing visible aspect of Kong Kee's KL hokkien mee compared to what is normally found in Singapore are the noodles themselves. Instead of the local yellow egg noodles used here, these are tai loke noodles, a thicker noodle, smooth and nearly a quarter-centimeter in diameter, with a luscious, dense texture, slick and slippery on the palate and with a very satisfying bite factor. These are noodles you can really sink you teeth into. They are brought directly from KL – it’s sad to think that no one is making this style of thicker, heavier noodle in Singapore. 

The richness of the dark sauce adorning the mee is borne from a stock melange of pork, chicken and flatfish, simmered slowly over an open flame for more than five hours. The noodles are then cooked in the savory elixir, adding a depth to their own opulent, plumpness. The sauce, so black and rich, is sticky like honey clinging to the noodles and imparting a rich, deep soy and spice flavor – savory but not bitter; naturally dulcet but not sweet. Balanced.

The difference between the 2 variations was significant. Prawns sat majestically on top of a mound of noodles, hues of red and orange glistening on the large, split shells with fat tails and head. But despite its beauty, nowhere in the sauce did we taste the essence of prawn; no delicate sweetness of roe; no briny notes of the sea. This was because the shellfish had been steamed separately and merely set on top of the noodles. To the chef’s defense, it did make for a more appealing appearance, but we chanted in unison Wah, cook the prawn together to make the dish special! Proprietor Jasmine Gan graciously accepted our comments for future versions.

Also missing in the prawn version was a trademark hokkien mee ingredient -- that singular requirement which, above all others, makes a good dish great and a great dish over the top -- lard. A quick rush in the kitchen overcame this crippling deficit with a generous bowl of hot-off-the-wok lardon bits which, like junkies slapping their arms for a quick fix, we quickly sprinkled on top and sighed a chorus of satisfaction as the hot fat crunched gently amidst the noodles then melted in our mouths.  No one can argue that limiting the lard is heart healthy; especially for those who are especially cholesterol conscious. But for me, the lardon bits saved the dish from a harsher commentary.

The plain hokkien mee faced no such risk of reprisal from our table. The same fat noodles graced the plate, the dark sauce coating each length like savory molasses. The slippery noodles snaked their way between my lips, resisted ever so slightly against my teeth, then relinquished into a perfect mee texture. Each bite delivered that priceless breath of almost-burnt-but-not-quite flavor from the searing wok. And the plunging depth of that je ne sais quoi flavor of, yes, lard infused within the sauce was both comforting and exciting at the same time. And with a generous sprinkle of the lardon on top, the dish transported me to previously undiscovered hokkien mee heights.

Of course man does not live on hokkien mee alone, and in addition to the noodles we tried the chef’s own crispy fried grouper chunks. A floss of greenery crowned the mound of golden fried fish sitting in a delicate rice nest flecked with minced red chilies. The texture of the fish was firm like little poppers, if not mildly dry, and was coated in a fine granular powder of herbs, sesame and other flavorful ingredients which were so tasty we wished they clung more tenaciously to the fish.

We also had 2 variations of sang har bee hoon and an order of sang har hor fun with prawns. Each was very nicely done but it was the sang har hokkien crispy mee that captured my attention most; light layers of noodles fried together to form delicious little tiles which oozed with rich sauce. We finished the meal with a serving of peanut paste and a chocolate paste, each with glutinous rice balls. Each was delicate and thin -- not overly sweet or cloying -- and the glutinous rice balls, filled with red bean paste, were like tender cotton balls of flavor and texture.

So whether the black KL style hokkien mee at Kong Kee is as good as that available in KL, I really can’t say. But the noodles are the same and with their richness of taste and the obvious good cooking technique displayed by our chef, I suspect it’s a pretty close contest. Combine them with the other offerings and Kong Kee is a great option among so many in Geylang.

Kong Kee Seafood Restaurant -- 611 Lorong 31, Geylang, Singapore