Biting the Big Mango

Biting the Big Mango

Your ears ring with the clanging of woks, sizzling of meats and calling of vendors as you work your way past stacks of fish, piles of meat, pyramids of gorgeous fruit, fresh-squeezed key limes, sugarcane or pomegranate juice, cooked insects and tailless cats prowling the curbs. It's a Bangkok Foodwalk at night!

What a time I recently had in Bangkok, eating my way down the street. Foodwalking in the Big Mango means traffic, trains and life-flashing rides on the back of motorcycle taxis. And of course, lots of walking. As is often the case in foodwalking, it isn’t always pretty, but it’s always interesting. And if you’ve spent much time in Bangkok you know that principle applies here in spades.

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Tiong Bahru Foodwalk: Dining in the Den of Beauties.

Tiong Bahru Foodwalk: Dining in the Den of Beauties.

One of Singapore’s oldest housing development neighborhoods, Tiong Bahru is an oasis of art deco buildings and culinary discoveries in an area that modern time forgot – until recently.

Once the desired living room of the upper-class, Tiong Bahru became infamous as the keeping place for mistresses of the rich and powerful, lending itself to the Mandarin label Mei Ren Wo (“Den of Beauties”). But the beauty here is not just skin deep; the architecture is also something to behold, with a mix of local Straits Chinese shophouses and art-deco structures with rounded balconies, flat rooftops and spiral staircases still in use today. Kind of like Miami's pre-gentrified South Beach with Chinese characteristics. 

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Sichuan Secrets: Illegal Eating in Hong Kong.

Sichuan Secrets: Illegal Eating in Hong Kong.

Despite Da Ping Huo's illegal secret restaurant status, it's as good an eatery as one could hope to find in Hong Kong.

 

My wife and I were in Hong Kong to celebrate a certain birthday event which shall not be spoken of. So naturally a surreptitious restaurant was the perfect venue. Da Ping Huo is one of those illegal "speakeasy's" -- private, secret restaurants -- that Hong Kong is known for within food circles. It is so easy to miss this place; just an unmarked door squeezed between random street vendors on a steep, narrow alley. The restaurant is actually the chef's apartment that has been converted into a tiny eatery, with only one way in or out. And you better be sure to only get there at the appointed time, otherwise the door is locked.

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FoodWalk: Katong - Lots’a laksa and lots more.

FoodWalk: Katong - Lots’a laksa and lots more.

Singapore’s Katong neighborhood is the battleground for one of the nation’s great wars – food wars, that is.

 

To many, East Coast Road in Singapore’s Katong neighborhood is just another bustling strip of old shophouses and new construction. But, in fact it’s a densely concentrated museum of Peranakan history and architecture, and the battleground for one of the nation’s great culinary wars.

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Westlake Restaurant: Back to basics, old-school style

Westlake Restaurant: Back to basics, old-school style

Within the realm of Singapore's local food one sometimes finds an old and nearly forgotten place that is a cut above all others. And one such old joints is Westlake.

 

Westlake’s location on the second level void deck of a large HDB housing estate is uncommon. The void deck is lined on both sides with little shops – bicycle stores, hairdressers and local sundries for the residents of the towers looming above. There are also a few eating houses with local fare and even an Italian pizza/pasta joint. At the far end sits Westlake, a stronghold of the community for nearly forty years and known by informed foodies as a place to get some really special food.

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Joo Chiat Foodwalk - Wandering the tasty trail!


The main event at Joo Chiat Prawn Mee


Joo Chiat in Singapore’s East Coast is all about food, which naturally makes it one of my favorite neighborhoods on this island of culinary treasures. Originally developed for growing coconuts and spices, it became a getaway for the wealthy in the 1920s. Now it’s a national heritage conservation area, with some of Singapore’s finest pre-war architecture and shophouses. And fantastic food. So take a two hour foodwalk for a little taste of some of the best of the best.

Geylang Serai Food Center
Begin your trip exiting the Paya Labar MRT station. And come hungry, because you’re not just touring a fascinating neighborhood, you’re foodwalking, so you're going to eat. Cross Sims Avenue, walk to Changi Road and turn left to stroll past the Malay Village, a collection of kampong huts and rundown bungalows housing souvenir treasures. Next door is the massive Gelang Serai Food Center, consisting of both wet market and excellent hawker center. Grab a cup of  kopi to start your day and stroll around reading about the history of the area on many posters and murals upstairs. But then, at Geylang Serai/Joo Chiat intersection, cross the street onto Joo Chiat Road. Welcome to food heaven.

The street is lined with shops ranging from bicycles, household supplies, clinics and, of course, restaurants. On the left near the corner of Joo Chiat Terrace you’ll come to Kway Guan Huat Coffeeshop (95 Joo Chiat Rd.). If it’s the weekend you’ll see in the open air storefront, a few old guys standing over hot griddles, dabbing dough to make popiah skins – those paper thin wrappers for Hokkien-style spring rolls. With a handful of loose, wiggling dough they touch it on the griddle and pull it back. The sheen which sticks to the hot surface cooks for a couple of seconds, transforming into the skin. The critical element to truly excellent popiah is the skin and these guys make it look so easy, but it requires a skilled hand to touch with just the right pressure and twist of the wrist to get the perfect thickness and texture.  

Zita Quek
Next door the popiah itself is made, with a slather of mashed garlic and soy syrup beneath a delicately cooked melange of turnip, carrots, prawns, egg, crispy dough bits and crushed peanuts. It’s all wrapped, stretched and rolled tight in the featherweight skins and cut like a sushi roll by – if you’re lucky – Zita Quek, the second generation owner who, with her infectious smile, has been making them here for over forty years. And when you taste them you will understand why all the fuss.

Across the street at the Masjid Khalid mosque you can peek into a no-frills, working man’s temple before heading to Sha Zah Confectionery (105 Joo Chiat Rd.) for Malay curry puffs. Unlike those ubiquitous half-moon versions, these are flat, flaky layers of pastry enveloping savory mutton, chicken or other fillings, handmade from scratch right there and sold over an open counter on the sidewalk. It's best not to look all too closely in the kitchen out back, because the amount of oil in the savory mutton filling will make your cardiologist double his rates. But try a fresh one warm from the oven and you'll want take more home so when you wake in the middle of the night craving it, they’ll be there.
The curry puffs are definitively not dietetic at Sha Zah.


Work off your snack at Changi Junk Store (125 Joo Chiat Rd.), where you can squeeze around thirty years’ worth of Chinese furniture, pottery, clocks and random items including a dried sawfish snout. It’s a cluttered treasure trove of, well, junk that is somehow alluring to sift through. The store’s name is well-suited.

The Lotus Shophouses
At the corner of Joo Chiat Place make a left. This street is lined with old Peranakan shophouses hugging the sidewalks and precarious open rainwater trenches. Local businesses mix with little restaurants and residences in this mixed area. At Everitt Road sits the Lotus Shophouse Collection, a tidy row of white shophouse residences, each with identical shuttered doors and windows and symmetrical, raised relief tiles reminiscent of old Peranakan architecture. In fact it's a row of attached condos which on their other side form and internal courtyard oasis of grassy lawn and palm trees. 

At Fei Fei - this is all you need to know.
Across the street is the Sin Wah Coffeeshop (62 Joo Chiat Place) housing the Fei Fei Noodle stall and, interestingly, just next door is the flagship Fei Fei Coffeeshop -- both of  which serve some of the most well-respected wanton mee in old-school hawker rooster bowls. Ask for chili sauce with your noodles; it will come in a Chinese spoon resting on top. Stir it all together, pulling the liquid in the bottom of the bowl throughout the perfectly al dente noodles. And don’t forget to order the wanton soup on the side. The minced pork wantons with a perfect little prawn inside float in a delicate broth. This meal is as good as it gets – for about $5 – so slurp your noodles loudly! If you like noodles (and who reading this doesn't?), you'll love Fei Fei.


Much as you will want to order another bowl at Fei Fei, don’t. Because just a few doors back toward Joo Chiat Road is Kim Choo Kueh Chang (60 Joo Chiat Pl.). Sample their classic Nonya bak chang dumplings – glutinous rice pyramids wrapped in bamboo leaves and steamed – containing treasures of pork, chestnuts, mushrooms, salted egg and soy. 

Making Bak Chang rice dumplings.
Inside they're making them fresh by hand, scooping the filling from large bowls, stuffing them in the sticky rice, and folding them artfully into perfect pyramids, large and small. Variations of fillings are marked by colored ribbons and you’ll want to buy a box of mini-dumplings for another midnight snack.

Continuing back toward Joo Chiat Road, turn left onto Tembling Road and stroll the neighborhood. At Koon Seng Road hang a right and pass rows of old Peranakan shophouses adorned with colorful facades and tiles. Some of these residences are renovated; others not, but they're all are authentic, with beautiful tiles, plaster reliefs and gentle, pastel colors. Don't miss this picturesque little block. 

Go left and continue down Joo Chiat Road, passing Chinese herbal clinics, great restaurants and countless local storefronts. At Joo Chiat Lane gaze up at the dragons on the corner for more of Singapore’s architectural past. In fact all through this neighborhood you'll notice old architecture and a sense of old local culture continuing on in the face of modern change. 

Pure, whipped D-24 durian for the puffs
Old meets new as you approach bustling East Coast Road. But first you’ll come to Puteri Mas Durian Puffs (475 Joo Chiat Rd) – perhaps the best place to reexamine your feelings about the king of fruit. Here they fill delicate choux pastry (used for profiteroles) with creamy durian and chill it. That's it -- durian and delicate pastry. Just two bites finishes this treat as the sweetness of the choux mingles with the subtle brie-and-garlic flavor of unadulterated, creamy fruit. Think you hate durian? Think again.

A few steps further and you’ve reached East Coast Road in the heart of Katong and the end of this foodwalk (watch for my upcoming Foodwalkers posting on that fabulous strip of laksa heaven)From here you can head back, perhaps -- if you're still hungry -- stopping at Joo Chiat Prawn Mee (15 Crane Rd.) along the way. Their perfect noodles, sweet, tender prawns and magical liquid sauce that pulls it all together will make you swoon over this unassuming little hawker stall hidden off the beaten path.


Or save it for a future foodwalk – I’ll lead the way – because there’s so much more amazing food to fall in love with in Joo Chiat!


Red Star: it’s not just about Dim Sum



For many people in Asia the two words, “Red” and “Star” evoke memories of Communist China and Chairman Mao standing in salute  as his motorcade rolled along Tiananmen Square. But for me, the words mean something entirely different: good food.

I’ve been going to Red Star Restaurant for traditional Cantonese dim sum since I first moved to Singapore. Dozens of Chinese ladies push trolleys around the massive room, each with different dim sum delights. It’s crowded and noisy and confusing, and sometimes you have to be kiasu and cut the pushcart ladies off at the pass to get the items you desire before diners at other tables take them all. “Wah, if you think it’s good for dim sum, you need to have dinner there. That’s where you get the really great stuff, lah!” Andrew told me with a slap on the back. So naturally I was one of the first to sign up for the recent Makanforum at the place where all who love old school Chinese food flock whenever they can.

A word about Red Star. It’s not a place one would accidentally wander into. It’s on the 7th floor of an old HDB housing estate wedged between Chinatown and Robertson Quay. The lift is small and slow and aside from the restaurant’s old neon sign several stories above the street, there’s no way to know that this non-descript building holds some of Singapore’s best – and most recognized – Cantonese cooking from days of old. It’s not until the lift doors open to a long queue of hungry Asians that you realize you’ve arrived somewhere special.

Inside, the dining room is enormous. The décor is classic Chinese restaurant circa forever: red carpet, red and gold walls, red ceiling. Hanging Chinese lanterns adorn the place and a small stage for ceremonies sits along one wall. Scattered throughout are round tables and if you come on a typical day most of them will be filled with Chinese families from newborns to octogenarians; all in varying states of enjoyment over the vast selection of food that has been served here for decades. The room will be loud with the undefinable sounds of families and friends doing what the people in Singapore do better than nearly any society anywhere: sharing food.

Grand Master Chef and Heavenly King, Sin Leong.
In the massive kitchen, a fleet of young chefs work intently on piles of food for the evening’s feast. One wall is lined with burners of jet fire roaring up beneath red-glowing woks sizzling with fragrant food. At the far end of the kitchen stands a large, antique dishwasher – perhaps Singapore’s first. Nearby is a Chinese alter, red wood and columns, with incense burning in front of a faded photograph of the granddaddy who started it all: Chef Luo Chen, who serves as a reminder to current cooks to carry on his legacy of exceptional dining. 

Makanguru KF Seetoh introducing the Heavenly
Kings, Chef Sin Leong & Chef Hooi Kok Wai,.

Walking toward me between long, stainless counters of the kitchen was the Grandmaster Chef and Heavenly King himself, Sin Leong, greeting and embracing me as if a long lost friend. Chef Leong is one of Singapore’s greatest Cantonese chefs – which is why the Chinese government bestowed upon him and 3 other masters in Singapore the honor and title of China’s Heavenly Kings of food – and they weren’t even in China. Seetoh was on hand to kickoff the dinner and introduce the 2 remaining Heavenly Kings who still grace the kitchens of Singapore, Chef Sin Leong and Chef Hooi Kok Wai.

Classic New Years dish, Yu Sheng -- required for any Lo Hei Celebration

The meal served under Chef Leong’s watchful eye was classic. It began with a traditional Chinese New Year Yu Sheng. This is a complex, Teochew-style raw fish salad consisting of up to twenty five ingredients and capped with thin slices of raw fish. The contemporary version of this dish was created in 1964 in Singapore's Lai Wah Restaurant by Chef’s Leong’s friend and fellow Heavenly King, the late Chef Than Mui Kai. Traditionally mackerel was used but increasingly – including this night – salmon was the fish of choice. Each ingredient represents a specific wish: raw fish for abundance; carrot for luck; chopped peanuts for gold, silver and eternal youth; daikon for a flourishing career; cinnamon for a sweet life – the list goes on. Combined as a salad, the ingredients form the basis of the Lo Hei celebration, done only during the Lunar New Year in virtually every Chinese household, restaurant or group gathering across Singapore.

Lo Hei celebration
We grabbed chopstickfuls of the salad from the communal platter and tossed it in the air seven times, representing the seventh day of the Chinese new year. Everyone at the table participated, lest one risk missing out on the prosperity that would surely ensue. Afterwards, the mess across the table was pulled together and served as the start to a lavish Chinese meal.

Stewed Shark Fin with Pig’s Tail in Claypot came first. The shark was smooth and silky, set off nicely with the pink porkiness of the small tails. The opaque, viscous sauce held the dish’s components together.

A platter of Steamed Fish Head in Bean Sauce followed, and we eagerly scooped out such tantalizing parts as the cheeks, collar and, of course, eyeballs.

Poached chicken - so good all that was left was the head.






Next came Pan-Fried Prawns in Special Sauce, quickly followed by a Poached Chicken with Ham & Broccoli in a thick beige ginger sauce. The chicken was moist and flavorful, complimented by the ginger and a satisfying crunch of perfectly cooked broccoli. Nary a morsel was left.

The dish that followed was the highlight of the meal for me, but one I did not expect to relish: Claypot Pork Liver with Ginger and Spring Onion. The key to this hot dish was to eat it quickly to ensure that the luscious liver remained medium rare and slightly pink in the middle. The dark sauce was rich and not livery at all, indicating the short amount of cooking time of the offal. Offset by the green freshness of the spinrg onions against a backdrop of steamed rice, the liver was surprisingly mild and delicious, although might have been even better if sliced thinner. 





Even New York niece Alison ate some of this, her family's  most feared of all “parts,” displaying a perhaps genetically-programmed Foodwalker fearlessness! She finished her bite, sipped an excellent apricot block shiraz, and announced to me that it didn’t suck. I was as proud as an uncle could be.


What followed was at first hard to discern, much less describe. The Crispy Duck with Glutinous Rice stuffing appeared  as an unidentifiable mass of deep fried yam batter wrapped around a stomach-sized stuffed duck. Inside, the duck and rice mingled delicately, if not a little dense, and delivered a earthy, waterfowl flavor with a savory, starchy rice emphasis. A bit less yam batter might have improved the dish and better-controlled the degree of cooking within. Still, nothing was left at the table.

The food at Red Star is old school and excellent and whether you’re looking for dim sum or dinner it’s hard to go wrong here. Combine that with the history of the restaurant, it’s local ambience and, of course, Heavenly King Sin Leong, and you have a recipe for great dining at one of Singapore’s most authentic Cantonese establishments.





Red Star Restaurant
Blk 54 Chin Swee Road
#07-23
Singapore 160054


Thaipusam: Spiritual food for the soul, not the stomach.



Poles of the kavadi are bolted through stomach flesh.
As a Foodwalker, the majority of my street roaming attention is on food, or things related thereto. And within the realm of food production, selling, cooking and eating – down the countless narrow alleys, beneath slanted shacks and within the confines of holes in the walls – lies fascinating culture which both defines the cuisine of the local area and at the same time transcends it into something greater than the subject of gastronomy, but of humanity. This element behind indigenous cuisine is one of the main ingredients making food taste so good.

But every now and then events occur which, though not related to food, seem still to fit a Foodwalker’s cultural passion. Like this month’s holy Hindu celebration of Thaipusam. It is on this one day each year that Tamil worshipers express prayers of gratitude to Lord Muruga and his victory over evil forces of darkness in the world, and make the final push for divine help in fulfilling their religious vows. The celebration is also one of atonement, where worshippers pay penance for the past year’s failings and pray for a better and more prosperous year ahead.
It’s no easy task. After fasting for anywhere from three days to a month, a devotee impales himself with religious decorations and items of significance. I’m not talking pinpricks here – he forces hooks, skewers and steel spikes into – even through -- his cheeks, tongue, lips, shoulders, chest, back and beyond. He then embarks, in a trance-like state, on a pilgrimage from one holy temple to another.

The items attached to hooks and chains vary, each representing a specific wish. Limes, for example, symbolize protection by the deities. Small pots contain sacred cow’s milk for cleansing and good fortune. To apply these adornments, selected areas of skin are massaged for a moment with white, holy ash, then the steel skewers and hooks are plunged through the tissue and out the other side – with no pain killers.

Many pious individuals also don steel or wood float-like structures called a kavadi (appropriately meaning “burden”) on their shoulders. The kavadi is traditionally decorated with peacock feathers, aluminum plates and gold ornaments which show images of Hindu deities. Bells, chains and other elaborate components drape from them and attach to the skin. Often weighing up to 15 kg (33 lbs), the kavadi is supported by long steel spikes which extend down from the base and pierce the skin on the chest, stomach and back to hold it in place. Support rods are bolted through thick folds of skin at the base of the abdomen to hold it all in place. With every step the sharp points and poles jiggle and poke a little deeper.
Spikes in the worshipper's chest help support the kavadi.

It requires great determination and endurance to pull off the pilgrimage and the toll it takes on many worshipers is palpable. Sometime one will begin to fade out of consciousness, only to be encircled by supporters, singing and chanting, clanging and drumming – louder and faster – as if to revive him enough to continue forward. Often someone will pause to hold a pilgrim up until he regains poise within his spiritual trance. The procession has been stopped by authorities in many countries, including even in parts of India. But it remains an annual tradition in Malaysia, where hundreds of thousands head to the Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur, and here in Singapore, where it’s an arduous trek beneath the blistering sun and high humidity from the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple on Serangoon Road to the Sri Thandayuthapani Temple on Tank Road.

Friends and family walk with the devotee, encouraging him on and often carrying pots of milk on their heads during the procession. The clamor of drums, cymbals, horns and bells rings out from every devotee’s group, helping to keep him entranced, while Indian religious music blasts onto the street from the many merchants along the pilgrimage path. 

Walking on a bed of nails.














Though most walk barefooted on the hot pavement of the streets, some traverse on a literal bed of nails – spiked wooden sandals strapped to their feet – each step probing deeper into their soles. A cane is often needed to help support themselves with each, painful step.



Such large-scale public acts of penance are not witnessed much around the world anymore. And the degree of fortitude and personal sacrifice of those practicing this sacred passage impales an onlooker’s memory nearly as deeply as the hooks in the worshipers’ skin. It demands passion and commitment and generations of prior practice, which draws parallels for this Foodwalker to the culture behind something else equally as remarkable and magnificent from India: its food.


Wet Market Wanderings: Shark!

                 


The wet markets of Singapore; how do I begin to describe them to one who has never been?  Do I simply explain that they are open air food stands contained under a common roof and offering fresh food to buy?  I could write a tome listing the endless array of fruit, vegetables, meat, seafood, poultry and a host of things that I don't exactly know how to classify but nevertheless look great.  Or do I describe them as a gathering of different vendors in every neighborhood in Singapore selling meat, produce and dry goods specific to the predominant ethnicity of that area?  That could become and even bigger opus.

To the untrained eye Singapore's wet markets may all look the same. Just rows and rows of counter-height stalls piled with good things to eat. You make your way along wet, slippery floors (they hose down portions of markets periodically to wash away the detritus), past boxes, baskets and coolers stacked in narrow aisles, and a rainbow of people from all over this melting pot of culture. Everyone is reaching for things to put in their round or rectangular plastic boxes to hand up to the auntie or uncle behind the food to tally in their heads or on a scrap of paper and gesture how much it all costs. It's a bustling, crowded, sometimes pushy and frequently noisy full-on sensory experience which, if you have any interest in Singapore's local food and the people who cook it, can't be missed.  But there's more to a wet market than meets the eye and not all sell the same things.

I can often choose which market to venture into depending on the category of my peckish sentiment at the moment.  If, for example, I want lamb or mutton, along with ghee in which to cook it and banana leaves on which to serve it, I head to Tekka market in Little India.  If pork tickles my palate, I avoid Tekka and head to Tiong Bahru where one can buy the entire swine's face or -- for the more particular -- just the ears or tails or trotters, not to mention all (and I mean all) parts in between.


Pig's heart/lung combo - is it still called "pork??"


If, alternatively, my menu calls for fully intact chickens or ducks; whole pigs; live frogs; squirming eels; turtles, lotus root packed in mud; any variety of live crabs; preserved duck eggs (which, by their blackened, straggly feathers and overall semi-decomposed appearance, may very possibly be the ultimate misnomer); nearly any variety of dried sea flora or fauna or piles of tender, soft noodles, it's off to the Chinatown Complex.  Of course great fish, fruits and vegetables can be had at an of these, though one gets picky over selection and price, so I have my favorites.



 And don't forget the dried foods ranging from a biology lab's worth of seaweed, dried meats, fish, herbs, prawns, fungi and countless varieties of shriveled critters and mollusks in varying stages of decomposition. The list of options available at the many Singapore wet markets goes on and on, and after only a short while you find that nothing shocks or disturbs you anymore and everything is worth at least an exploratory taste.



But every now and then something shows up that intrigues even the most well-seasoned wet marketeer and is worthy of special note.  And this particular day was no exception.  I walked into the market in search of lemon grass to make a refreshing "tea" to cut through the tropical heat that simmers within my core after a crowded morning slogging through the fish-scaly puddles and fleshy air of a wet market.  When I happened upon a shark. Not a shark like the smaller ones in every fish stall - black tip reefers or the ubiquitous dogfish used to make an affordable interpretation of shark's fin soup.  But a rather biggish shark -- stretching nearly 2 meters.  In other words big enough to cause your average expat holiday snorkeler to uncontrollably contaminate the clear waters of a coral reef.

The creature's pinpoint eyes--piercing even in death--caught my attention first, following which I momentarily scanned its length, estimating the height of its dorsal fin and, inevitably, the diameter of its wide mouth.  I stood there, admiring the catch of the day, with its tawny sandpaper skin, intricate leopard spots and creamy underbelly.

I touched it.

"You wan buy?" The Chinese fishmonger barked at me from across the crabs and squid.  I could sense from his dubious expression that he already knew the answer.

But I played along. "How much?"

"Seven per kilo. But must buy whole fish." No doubt, a "special promotion" for the sweaty ang moh with the Nikon standing before him.

"How heavy?"  I replied, eyeballing the beast as if sizing it up for my wok at home.

"Fifty five k-g.  Very nice!"

I did the math and wondered if in Princeton, New Jersey one could buy a fresh 120 pound shark for $300. That's about $2.50/pound.  Not bad, I thought, trying to picture our maid's expression when I slapped that bad boy down on the kitchen counter so she could get to work.

But apparently I was not the only one with such grand ideas, because before I knew it a more ambitious Singaporean stepped forward and, speaking rapidly to the vendor in short, sharp words, pointed to the fish.

I glanced at him, my face demonstrating disappointment at his attempt to usurp my family's dinner.  My competitive spirit flared and I nearly leaned in to begin the bidding war.

But he had the advantage -- Mandarin -- and the negotiation went fast and furious, until he handed over what appeared to be a much smaller amount of currency than previously required of me, and sealed the deal.

"Xie xie," my fishmonger friend nodded at my victor before dropping the money into a tin and turning away to address an enormous grouper in need of filleting.

And so ended my shark tale.  But that's okay, because tomorrow is another day in the wet markets of Singapore... and I'm going back for goat....


Postscript:  None of the foregoing is intended to condone the fishing for or killing of sharks. Great controversy exists over the indiscriminate killing of sharks for their fins. Often the desecrated creatures are just tossed back the sea – sometimes still alive. I believe that such a cruel practice is both inhumane and an unjustifiable waste of valuable wildlife resources. What do you think?

Singapore's Tasty Garden of Ginger


A walk through the Ginger Garden section of Singapore’s idyllic Botanic Gardens is like stepping into a microcosm of natural beauty. The understated elegance of the flowers, some with firm, waxy blossoms, others with wispy, delicate petals, are perhaps what moves me most. Unlike the flamboyant orchids nearby, so stunningly vibrant and optic like glittering movie stars beneath the klieg lights, ginger plants are the quiet, intelligent girls in the classroom; like Gilligan’s Maryann in the shadow of Ginger, or the kind of girl a good son takes home to mother.


The Ginger Garden is like a jungle, dense with greenery and a sparkle of color every now and then. A walk-through waterfall covered with white ginger blossoms adds a symphony of natural sound to a stroll along the several small paths which fan off from both sides of the main walkway. Many of the ginger plants are recognized instantly: birds of paradise, heliconia. Others are large and unusual with intricate leaves and tiny floral blooms. Bananas and a surprising array of over 250 other familiar and unfamiliar plants also fall within the ginger family and grow amongst the greenery, making this a beautiful ethnobotanic experience. Who says school needs to be in a classroom…?


Halia – ginger in the garden
But the Ginger Garden is not just about flowers; it’s also about food. In the center of the garden lies Halia Restaurant (“ginger” in Malay), a calm, relaxed place for an uncommonly good, albeit pricey, meal in a gorgeous setting. The restaurant underwent a facelift in 2011, including an attractive open kitchen inside its glass-walled bungalow dining room and an outdoor bar for al fresco cocktails in the middle of lush flora.

In keeping with its location, Halia incorporates ginger and other local ingredients into several of their dishes, drawing also upon other excellent foods sourced from around the world: Oysters from Australia, Jamon Iberico Bellota from Spain, lamb from New Zealand.

Feeling only slightly peckish, I started a light meal with Coffin Bay oysters, which delivered a clean, briny flavor. Best freshly shucked on the half shell, the sampler also included a demure tempura with ponzu drizzle, and an in-shell gratin with sautéed baby spinach dusted with nutmeg and parmesan.


Next came a tian of vine-ripened tomato which offered a delightful vegetal brightness. The super-ripe tomatoes, so bold and sweet, were layered simplistically with pine nuts, guacamole and mango salsa and were as delicious to the eye as to the palate.


I hadn't planned on a big meal, but who could resist an order of ginger-infused cubes of foie gras with green apple, fresh fig and piment flakes on top of  micro greens kissed with a balsamic deglaze?

Not me.

Or the light and crisp Tempura of white prawn with tender leaves and a tickling lemon vinaigrette?

I had to have that, too.




Then, like a haunting whisper, a black and white sesame crusted blue fin tataki main dish murmured my name. With sautéed baby spinach and saffron cream sauce, its contrasting textures and flavors were nicely balanced, though for me the more rare the better.

I could have stopped there, but I also coveted the sauteed risotto soja, blended with traces of mascarpone and parmesan and topped with oyster and a foam of truffle, seaweed and mushroom. I caved to the temptation, and its subtle umami essence amidst the creamy risotto persuaded me to keep to the sea just a little longer.

So I reeled in the Hiramasa kingfish with grapefruit foam resting on a thin potato galette. The bubbles of intense grapefruit made the powerful white fish flavors fly.

But it was rude for me to ignore Halia’s meat, right? So as a selfless act of contrition I crawled from the sea toward a drippingly juicy Blackmore Wagyu rump beside garlic saffron mashed potatos and a dollop of sautéed baby spinach. The perfectly-marbled meat nearly melted in my mouth.

Of course, I reasoned, the Pan-seared Challan’s duck breast – so perfectly rare, rendered and resting on lyonnaise potatoes – would be an excellent prelude to the earthy New Zealand rack of lamb marinated in Javanese spice and alongside purple potato puree. It would surely be a missed opportunity to pass up.

And I was right; it was impossible not to pick up the bones and clean them to nothing.










Sweet Endings 
While I tend to opt for extra pork chops in lieu of dessert, I did admire the artistry (and then the taste) of the fig tart with bacon pear ice cream, creatively coupled with an almond date atop brie. But then to not frolic in the Strawberries & Cream’s “edible garden” of raspberry, blueberry, flowers, chocolate choux pebbles and almond cocoa soil would have been a crime; especially if it meant missing the tangy passion fruit lychee shooter to wash it all down.


In retrospect I never should have had it, but it’s the Chocolate Air & White Truffle Snow that has become the newest monkey on my back. So weightless but forward was the chocolate, electrified by the almost-inhalable white “snow,” yet barely discernable to the tongue. The only crunch on the plate was a savoury egg custard phyllo stack with strawberries. It was instantly addictive and thankfully legal.

Not wanting to upset my diet, I reluctantly decided that my light meal should probably come to an end. So I ordered Halia’s own sun-dried ginger & wild mountain honey infusion which, like an astringent on my freshly-scrubbed face, invigorated me enough to jog all the way home....

Or was it waddle?

Either way, I’ll be back again soon -- when I’m feeling really hungry….





Halia Restaurant
1 Cluny Road, Ginger Garden
Singapore Botanic Gardens
6476 6711 

Lunch: 12 noon to 4pm
Dinner: 6.30 pm to 10pm

Kiang Kee -- Bak kut teh the old school way

There are monkeys along the road that leads North from Johor Bahru, Malaysia. They squat on their haunches at the edge of the tarmac, watching us whiz by. We've been in the small Nissan driven by Ettore since 8:00am, having needled through Johor Bahru, passed suburbs of dusty, crowded local shops, then buzzed along countless hectares of stunted palm trees in the middle of nowhere. It’s almost 11 am and we’re hungry, having eaten nothing all morning – which explains our three hour ride from Singapore – for bak kut teh.

“It’s the best I’ve had,” Ettore announced three nights before at a Makansutra dinner. Now, I’ve tried a lot of damn good pork rib tea in Singapore, but Ettore’s strong comment gave me pause. He has, after all, been in the F&B business here for more then twenty years. So when he offered to drive to the situs of “the best bak kut teh,” I jumped at the chance.

Misspelling or not?

Kian Kee Bak Kut Tea

attracts a breakfast crowd of locals and pork bone soup aficionados from all over. That’s right,

breakfast

. Which is the best time to eat this hearty meal of pork ribs slow cooked to melting tenderness in a soupy concoction of herbs and spices. It’s an unassuming place that one might drive right by unless spotting the dirt lot crowded with cars bearing Singapore plates. About 40 km north east of JB in Kota Tingii, it’s connected to a rustic motorcycle repair shop crammed with greasy parts and scooters. The restaurant is little more than a thatched roof

pondok

over a concrete pad and indicated by a plain sign with the traditional “Teh” part of its main dish spelled like the elixir the soup is: “Tea.” Beneath is an open kitchen with a row of coal pots and a few enormous stockpots. Smoke from real wood charcoal is pushed around lazily by ceiling fans and flames shoot up around the sides of clay pots bubbling furiously with an array of brown, clear and opaque liquids purging streams of fragrant, herbaceous steam.

Kian Kee has been an institution in these parts for more than 20 years. Back in the day they made their famous tea/soup with wild boar hunted locally in the jungle. Today, however, it’s local domestic pigs that keeps everyone coming back for more. Each serving is cooked in claypot to order, gurgling under the heat of flames dancing around the edges, occasionally sparking up into bubbles of miniature porcine fireworks. Multiple claypots boil away at the same time, most with the prized dish, but others with delicate liquids and vegetables or bread getting a claypot grilling to add a subtle, slightly smoky char along the edges. The aromas, sounds and visuals of this rustic, almost-outdoor cooking of a food that is really supposed to be cooked

only

this way, is utterly intoxicating and just plain sexy.

Everyone who goes here orders the same thing from the very limited menu: the bak kut teh. Of course, add to it a little

mei cai

(wafer-like crispy tofu skin) and some

you tiao

(those slender, deep fried bread stick chunks) and you’ve got yourself a meal that will carry you deep into the afternoon. A pot of

Hao Cha Loh

tea, should steep at the table, providing a remarkably fragrant and satisfying drink. But we didn’t stop at the bak kut teh. As if to somehow further validate our

distance-traveled to volume-eaten

quotient, we also ordered braised pig trotter, enoki mushrooms in fragrant broth, stewed tripe,

pork-braised

Tau Fu Pok

(fried beancurd) and steamed rice.

Secret ingredient - wine

The bak kut teh came still bubbling and was almost viscous with richness. And upon first taste it displayed a different flavor profile than what I expected from my Singapore versions. It was light on pepper (unlike many in Singapore) and richly translucent with savory pork flavor, strong herbs, garlic and a curious tingle of Chinese rice wine which added an umami-like enhancement to the overall experience. Its delectable balance of salt and herbs created the perfect host for the glistening pork, clinging pale to the bones but slipping off into moist buttery bites bursting with infused flavors from the luxurious elixir it bathed in. And as the 

mei cai

 absorbed the tea it added a chewy sensation that was out of this world. It was, in a word,

ultra-shiok!

The trotter was tender and robust, with a dark braising liquid adding a porky richness and an earthiness from the claypot in which it cooked. 

It offered a flavor alternative to the bak kut teh which was complimentary and, oddly, not the least redundant. The meat dripped from the bones into tender slivers of knuckle goodness that made us swoon.

The tripe (stomach) floated elegantly in a simple pepper pork broth and presented a gentle, not-so-chewy texture and clean taste. With no hint of iron mineral-ness it was a soothing offal dish and easily the most delicate tripe I’ve had.

Resting on the surface of thin stock, entertained by some barely wilted

bok choy

cabbage, the

enoki

mushrooms were alluring in their snow white gentility. Evoking memories of fine Japanese dining, the clear broth served as a featherweight canvas for the barely-fruity taste and moist texture of the mushrooms. A study in beauty and simplicity, it was culinary mycology at its best.

To be sure, there is excellent bak kut teh in Singapore; some versions that I would proudly serve to anyone from anywhere. But Kiang Kee offers something different and not readily available in Singapore anymore – rustic old school cooking in a setting reminiscent of days gone by. Combine that with the exceptional flavor alternative to what is encountered across the causeway and you have something worth driving three hours for. But get there early, because at Kiang Kee

breakfast

is the name of the game and they’re sold out by lunch.

Restaurant Kiang Kee Bak Kut Tea

Batu 8 ½

Jalan Mawai

Kota Tingii 81900

Malaysia

7:30 am – 12 (or until sold out).

Ramen Santouka – These ain't your noodles from college!

Classic Shio Ramen with Tokusen Toroniku pork cheeks.

When I think of ramen noodles it evokes increasingly distant memories of my college days, when for twenty five cents I could buy a cellophane block of hard, dry noodles and a foil bullion pack which would sustain me through another night of, er, “studying.” Like so many of my neo-poverty colleagues, I practically lived on the stuff. It was cheap, salty and cooked up in about three minutes. It didn’t matter if the crusty noodles got smashed between the books and beer in my backpack because all I was looking for was a salt delivery system; just throw a little beef jerky in the pot and you had yourself a meal. That’s what I thought ramen was.

Years later a friend invited me to a lunch of real ramen – a food I had thought little of since those lean college days. I hesitated before accepting the dubious invitation; my disbelief suspended only because this guy is a well-established “foodie.” He spoke of things I had never associated with ramen: “globules of shiny fat,” alkaline noodles and umami. It didn’t sound like the ramen of my youth and I began to wonder if, perhaps, I had missed something along the way. Still, I approached the half-curtained entry to Ramen Santouka in the Central at Clarke Quay warily, preoccupied by visions of plastic bowls filled with grey, watery soup and flavorless stale noodles. I could not have been more mistaken.

What I did not know upon entering Ramen Santouka was that I was entering not just an unassuming Japanese restaurant chain from Hokkaido but also a world of food fanaticism and unrelenting, age-old culinary exactitude. Admiring the elegantly simple décor and sweeping view of the Singapore River, my dubious expectations dissipated when, throughout the room, I saw nothing but happy people slurping noodles out of large stoneware bowls from which floated gentle puffs of sumptuous steam. Before I knew it, similar dishes were placed before us, along with a plate of juicy Tokusen Toroniku pork cheeks, the warm aroma of which triggered an instant Pavlovian response. What is this mysterious concoction before me? I thought and, as if he could read my mind, my friend simply whispered: “Ahh, shio ramen.”

It is said that the majority of ramen diners burn the roof of their mouths ever so slightly on their first sip of every bowl of ramen, and my experience was no exception. The slight singe of my first taste was accompanied by a deep, earthy flavor that blossomed on my palate into a silky richness like I had never before tasted in soup. The shio broth in which my tender noodles rested was dense and milky white, evenly infused with the tiniest spheres of bubbly, liquid marrow. Despite its salt and pork origin, it was not excessively briny or oleaginous. Instead, its smoky sensation of savory pork stock, blended with the woodiness of shitake mushrooms, ginger, garlic and tickled with a herbaceous, salty hint, was a masterful lesson in depth, texture and balance. And that was when all preconceived notions from college vanished and I realized that ramen – perhaps the purest form of Japanese “comfort food” – is serious cuisine.

Just what is it that makes a simple bowl of boiled bone soup and noodles take on rock-star status in the world of great food? In Japan it’s more than a food or even cuisine, but indeed, a way of life. Santouka chef and supervisor Koji Kanoi explained that great ramen requires a commitment to precision, patience and a lot of practice. Which is why not just anyone can boil up a pot a ramen; not a decent one, anyway. 

The ramen closest to the Chinese culinary roots from which this distinctly Japanese food sprang over a hundred years ago is shôyu, a soy-based broth and the most common version found in such ramen-centric venues as Tokyo. But at Santouka they span the general categories of true ramen also serving shio (salt), tonkotsu (pork broth) and miso (fermented bean paste) varieties. Whatever the style (or tare) of ramen, they always start with the broth – the genesis of which is an enormous pot of water, dried fish and vegetables and exceptional pork bones. 

Producing the broth involves carefully roasting the bones before boiling them furiously for over five hours to extract all their flavor and marrow. Then commences a sixteen hour balancing act of adding to the liquid other ingredients, including chicken, herbs vegetables, konbu seaweed, dried bonito flakes and any number of secret ingredients. It simmers under precisely controlled temperatures in order to reach the perfect combination of intensity, flavor and viscosity. 

“But it’s really all in the bones.” Kanoi-san whispered as he raised the lid from a vat of roiling bones. And not just any old bones. After years of experimenting with many sources around the world, Santouka found the perfect pigs to precede its soup. “The marrow is the key and our carefully staggered cooking process gently coaxes it out and builds the broth,” he explained. But when I asked where those exquisite bones came from, Kanoi-san just sucked a little air through his teeth and smiled politely.
“There is no room for shortcuts if it is to meet our standards,” said the soft-spoken cook from Hokkaido. “So today’s soup was started yesterday and the soup cooking now will be ready tomorrow.” The finished broth – thickened naturally by the luscious marrow – is carefully maintained under meticulous temperature control until served. Mine – one shio and one shôyo (I had to try both!) – were ladled into bowls atop luscious homemade noodles – alkaline based to absorb just the right flavor while remaining slick and firm to the tooth. Floating on the surface was the classic accompaniment of scallions, nori, bamboo shoots and an umbioshi sour plum to compliment those amazing pork cheeks with a delicate brown outer ring, succulent pinkish center and an unparalleled butter-soft texture on the tongue.

At only 200 grams each, only sixty Tokusen Toroniku cheeks are prepared on a typical day. “We tried cheeks from different regions of the world, starting in Japan, but also in Australia, the United States and elsewhere before finding the very best. But that’s all I can say.” Kanoi-san said, reverently holding an intricately marbled slab of the wagyu-style meat. The pork is marinated in shôyu before the actual braising process begins, following which it undergoes a profound transformation so secret he only let me peek at the precious meat in a simmering, reddish fusion of braising stock, herbs and spices. I pressed him for the recipe, but he just sucked more air through his humble smile. 

Pork cheeks secretly braising.
I nodded, suddenly understanding that such trivial questions about recipes are not easily answered, because the ramen at Santouka is more than just a really good recipe. The brilliance that makes this soup so indelibly arresting is indefinable. Its unsurpassed richness is more than just the product of using the best ingredients and building into it a distinct-yet-indefinable source of umami. Its luscious texture is more than just the result of culinary expertise. Such depth and complexity of flavor can only be borne from a knowledgeable passion for perfection and a stubborn refusal to accept anything less. And it’s that sliver of culinary magic – a discipline which takes years to learn and a lifetime to perfect – that carves the unbridgeable chasm between the quick-fix instant ramen of my youth and Santouka’s gustatory masterpiece.

Ramen Santouka
6 Eu Tong Sen Street #02-76
The Central at Clarke Quay
+65 6224 0668

Foodwalk: Getting Lost in Singapore's Little India


Whether praying in temples, selling items on the street or hawking food in restaurants and markets, Singapore’s Little India is as real as India gets this side of the subcontinent. It's a great place for a foodwalk if, of course, you are feeling very hungry. 

Begin your 3-hour foodwalk at the Little India MRT and head into Tekka Market for roast duck from Heng Gi Goose & Duck (stall 01-335). They’ve been serving up Teochew braised waterfowl for nearly fifty years. Combined with their fois-gras, homemade tofu and a crunchy duck foot it’s a full flavor study in control and balance. But it's a big plate, so share it with a friend or two because there is some good food in your foodwalking future.

Walk up Buffalo Road past fruit and vegetables bulging from storefronts onto the sidewalks until you reach Serangoon Rd. Cross the road, turn left and head North to the corner of Norris Road for Azmi Restaurant (also known as Norris Road Chapati) (168 Serangoon Road) whose slogan: “Secret of good mood; Taste of Azim’s food” is hard to argue with. The menu here is old-school, with everything cooked from scratch since 1944 in the tiny kitchen out back. Their specialties – simple whole-wheat chapatis – are cooked on a round iron griddle by a guy in an izaar wrap standing barefoot on a sheet of cardboard. He’s been making chapatis there since 1956 when the British still controlled Singapore. 

To understand just how good Azmi is, order two chapattis and the mutton keema – granules of savory minced meat, peas, potatoes and spices slow-cooked into a mélange of magnificence. Brighten the deep, earthy flavors with a side of shaved onions, crisp cucumber and a squirt of calamansi.  The chapatis are soft and warm; thin disks of pure wheat and water, flaking apart like dense tissue paper. Tear it into ribbons and scoop up gobbets of the keema. Then fight to restrain your whimpers of jubilation. 

Just a few doors down Serangoon is Valli Flower Mill (174 Serangoon Road), one of the few remaining hand spice grinding and roasting operations in Singapore. Between running spice rakes though the raw umber powder, barefooted men still grind spices in the hundred-year-old mills. The air wafts a smoky perfume of cumin, chili, garlic, cinnamon, turmeric and other blended spices toasting gently in a large dry roasting trough. 
Continue along Serangoon, ducking under low-hanging awnings and crowded stores selling clothes, jewelry and food. Turn right at Desker Road and walk to Lembu Road to find the unassuming Bangla Square, also known as Lembu Road Open Space. Tall trees shade this bricked plaza, whose perimeter is lined with local shops selling Bangladeshi snacks, folded betel nut leaf and delicious sweets. Cool off with a refreshment at one of the tables while watching young men playing Carom, a sort of tale-top snooker with discs that slide on the powdered surface and knock the opponent’s discs away.

From Bangla Square, stroll past the many brightly colored shophouses along Desker and then right, along Kampong Kapor Road. When you reach Upper Weld Road hang a right and head to Tim Sim Coffee Shop (40 Clive Street) on a triangular intersection of Upper Weld, Dickson and Clive Streets. You may not recognize this wallless, tin-roofed corner of the street as a coffee shop at all. But it’s been there for nearly 100 years, according to the brewer who, by the looks of him, may very well have celebrated its grand opening. He'll make your kopi slowly, shuffle to your plastic table and bark “You try.” The coffee is old-school in the strictest sense: butter-roasted, dark and robust, and very, very strong.

From Upper Weld Road continue down Upper Dickson toward Serangoon, cross it and stroll down Kerbau Street, following it to the right where it becomes Belilios Lane. At the end of the lane you reach the side of the remarkably ornate Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple (141 Serangoon Road). If it’s open you should go in and have a look at the silver prayer bell, intricate religious art and enclosed courtyard with shrines dedicated to Hindu deities. Then retrace your path down Belilios Road and follow it the short block to Chander Road.

Directly across from you sits the tiny Cettinadu New Restaurant (41 Chander Road). A waiter will ladle from steel pots raita, stewed greens, spiced potato and a dollop of chutney “pickle” onto your fresh banana leaf “plate.” Order the classic Chettinad chicken curry or mutton masala and dive in -- but only with your bare, right hand. The waiter will keep refilling your sides until you beg him to stop. When you’re done, simply fold your leaf in half and wait for the (very small) bill.

Turn right upon exiting the restaurant and head down Chander Road to where it bends right into Kerbau Road. On the corner is North Indian Sri Lakshminarayan Temple (5 Chander Road), with its red beehive shaped Amalaka domes. Across the street, set back from the corner is a courtyard lined with small Indian snack joints offering tasty curry puffs, sweets, teh tarek and fresh-made pani puri. 

Across the courtyard is the ornately painted Tan Tang Niah shophouse (37 Kerbau Road), built in 1900 and passed through a colorful history until being designated a preservation building in 1990. From here you can pass through narrow, shaded vegetable stalls between the buildings leading to Buffalo Road and the end of your foodwalk.  Turn right a few meters to Race Course Road and the MRT station.


If you reflect over what you’ve just seen and tasted you’ll realize that old-school Singapore is still alive in Little India and it’s utterly approachable and delicious. If you enjoy Indian colors, culture and cuisine, you’ll fall in love with this neighborhood. And if you’re timid to Indian food here’s the good news: there’s no better or more hygienic place on the planet to discover the real thing than right here.

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

To he who made food exploration easier and cooler -- a Tribute to Steve Jobs.


Today I type this with gentle, quiet fingers, instead of with my usual fury of flying phalanges.

There are few people in this day and age whom I can say were so influential, visionary and simply brilliant that, not only did they positively change the world as we know it, but also changed my own daily life for the better. Steve Jobs was one such person. When I think about his contributions to modern aspects of communication and computing -- making difficult technology easy, even fun, to use -- I am astonished. In history we've all learned about many such people -- inventors and technology innovators like DaVinci, Edison, Franklin, Einstein and so many others -- whose work utterly changed the world. And we tend to think that all the really great inventions have already been made, because we can't imagine more. 

Well, Steve Jobs did imagine more. And he brought those crazy, impossible ideas to reality. He manipulated a machine that was so indescribably complicated and difficult to use into something that is simple for nearly anyone -- wysiwyg on a computer, drag and drop, a mouse?? Welcome the Lisa and Macintosh. He created the ability to easily carry all your music in your pocket and listen to it wherever you are, whenever you want -- iPod. He enabled us to carry a telephone that does almost all of the things which that Macintosh and that ipod, and email and camera and movies and writing and access to any information anywhere in the world at any time and so much more, in one cool, sleek little Hershey's chocolate bar-sized package -- iPhone. He took a super-charged, easy to use Apple computer and squeezed it down into a thin, small, light and very sexy device that you can take anywhere as if you had your entire office in a slim envelope -- iPad. He even made it appropriate to spell proper nouns with a lower case "i" instead of a capital letter, thereby instantly identifying it to everyone as something technologically advanced merely by virtue of that little lower case letter. I could go on and on... but it's easier to say simply that Steve Jobs didn't just change the way we work, play, communicate and even speak; Steve Jobs changed our culture and directed our future.

As a Foodwalker, I use Steve Jobs' brilliant ideas constantly. Whether identifying where to go and eat, to finding it's gps location as I wander lost around unknown neighborhoods, or calling people to come join me because the food is so good, or taking impromptu pics of the food or stalls, or even sitting here now and writing this -- it's all made easier because of Steve Jobs and the global, user-freindly technology industry that he was so critically involved in shaping. Without his imagination, innovation, persistence and unyielding demand for excellence combined with aesthetics -- even to the point of trashing his own creations and starting over again -- many of us foodies would be working a lot harder today for no additional gain. And we wouldn't look nearly as cool, either....


So I take this sad moment of Steve Job's passing to set down the chopsticks, push away the noodles and marvel at the incredible man that was Steve Jobs. Apple will continue -- Steve himself even said that he believed its best days were still ahead of it -- and I have no reason to not believe him. I just can't imagine it, that's all. But imagination and bringing crazy ideas to reality was his forte, not mine, so he must have known what he was talking about when he said it. And that's good enough for me. 

So rest in peace Mr. Jobs, and thanks for making all of our lives better, easier and a whole lot cooler. Our children's children's children will one day study you in school and think to themselves that all the great inventions have already been made....

Secret BBQ chicken wings that aren’t so secret….


In Singapore it’s not advisable to proclaim one hawker center food stall as the “best” for any particular dish. With sky-high food standards virtually wound into the DNA of most Singaporeans, it’s just too controversial an issue. Still, every now and then one stumbles upon a stall which operates on a different level than its competitors and merits bold commentary. Such places are often little-known to the uninitiated, but if you keep your food radar on when waiting in queues or sitting in crowded restaurants, you will inevitably pick up names of secret places in the furtive whispers of locals talking about great food. These are the places to find; the secret food that everyone knows about, but no one thinks anyone else does. In Singapore, however, food secrets don’t stay secret for long.

Singapore Wings
Before I go further, I should say a word about barbecued chicken wings here. They are very popular and found all across the island. But don’t expect the dripping, red bar food favorite of the US, because whether you call it the Queen City, the Nickel City, or even the City of Lights, Buffalo is still over 9000 miles away and its culinary claim to fame is nearly as distant as Singapore’s hawker centers. Here, wings are cooked in one piece – complete from soft tip to meaty shoulder. They are neither deep-fried nor tossed in cayenne sauce, and they are not served with blue cheese or celery. Instead, wrap your culinary imagination around a flame-roasted, slightly charred wing, stretched, tanned until golden and glistening with a thin, soy-based marinade cooked deep into the skin. They are moist inside, crisp outside and barbecued over an open fire. You smell them on wisps of charcoal smoke before you even reach the stall. The wafting aroma summons a primal response, causing you to stretch your neck and strain your eyes in search of the roasting delicacy you suddenly must have. That’s what wings are in Singapore. And they’re usually about three bucks for an order of three – that’s, like, nine wing sections for the US equivalent of the small latte at Starbucks. Need I say more?

The Secret Place
Barbequed chicken is all they do at Sheng Pin Xiang and they do it well. Really well. The stall is tiny, with no menu posted and not a single rating or newspaper review plastered on the wall. The inside is as austere as the outside: neat, clean and oddly uncluttered, almost as if unoccupied. But on this day the sumptuous smoke trailing from the fire said otherwise, and it pulled me like a cartoon character toward the small, open counter, behind which stood a sole cook calmly tending to a row of plump chicken wings on the steel skewer.

The wings looked sexy roasting over that perfect bit of gray and red glowing charcoal – and not those little briquettes, but earthy, blackened twigs and branches of carbonized wood. Flames danced rhythmically to the fizzing and popping of chicken fat dripping from just inches away. The meat shimmered in the heated haze as if alive and teasing my taste buds with slow-cooking aloofness; its smoky aroma broadcasting the wonders of things to come. Minutes stretched like hours as I stood, transfixed, while the meat cooked, slowly, slowly. Until at last the cook lifted them from the fire and in one smooth move slid them from the skewer to a thick wood carving board, cleaved them into sections and eased them onto my waiting plate.

The Wings
I took my order to a nearby table and examined it like a scientist. Each wing was roasted to a deep, golden gloss with just a tinge of crispy carbon along the edges. Steam bubbled through the skin in miniscule puffs of heavenly perfume like a prelude to the first bite. A slight, sweet/tart essence from the soy mystery brew that the cook had brushed on during cooking elevated the juicy, free-range flavor to heights which, in its live state, that bird could not have flown. The citrus sparkle of the tiny calamansi lime
I squirted on, combined with a drizzle of fire-orange chili/garlic/ginger sauce for just the right touch of heat, sent me into a tailspin of gastronomic delirium.

Maybe it was the exceptional quality of chicken that made these tender wings so profoundly delicious. Or perhaps it was the charcoal, or the soy BBQ, or the fresh lime, or the chili sauce. Probably it was all of these combined. But whatever it was, I now daringly stick my neck out and proclaim the barbecued wings from this obscure little stall in the middle of a Toa Payoh hawker center as the best I have ever had. Anywhere.

So far, that is, because I will keep my ear low to the ground in hopes of catching yet more whispers of secret places to eat. But in the meantime, remember – this is my own whisper about my own secret place. So mums the word….

Packaged Laksa?!?



I’ve been spending a lot of my time over the least few weeks eating laksa. As a foodwalker I would be remiss if I didn’t – it’s one of Singapore’s premiere foods, even if loyal Malaysians argue that it’s not actually ours. But like so many things splashing over the rim of Singapore’s melting pot, the initial origin of a food does not bestow proprietary rights. Even before the early days when the legendary Mr. Janggut pedaled his short-noodle version in Katong, laksa has been one of Singapore’s most popular dishes. Today it’s found in nearly every hawker center in every heartland neighborhood. It’s in food courts, restaurants, hotels – even the airport and the Botanic Gardens. And it’s found at home, too. One stroll through a grocery store will reveal many brands of instant laksa, each extolling superior quality and taste.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Prepackaged laksa on the shelves of your friendly neighborhood grocer? That’s treading dangerously close to that other ubiquitous meal-in-a-minute: Ramen. And comparing real ramen – a culinary discipline taking a lifetime to perfect – to those cellophane squares of stale noodles and foil packs, 10 for a buck, is much like comparing Sean Connery and George Lanzenby as James Bond: the name, pistol and cocktail are the same, but that’s as far as it goes.

Taking issue with my dour view of pre-packaged versions of any soup that normally takes all day to make, however, was a comrade in my world of food exploration. We were sitting in a hawker center eating kway chap (stewed pig organs) and beef laksa, having just talked to the guy in the stall who for the last forty years has been coming to work at 1:00 am to start his soup for the afternoon crowd. "Well, there is one instant brand that’s pretty good," my friend murmured under his breath, avoiding eye contact and the risk of physical reprisal. What’s that?" I clamored, shocked at such a statement. But he stood his ground, cleared his throat and almost looked me in the eye.  "Prima Taste," he said.

I wanted to disagree with him as a matter of principle. No way a small package from the deep shelves of Fairprice can spawn anything remotely similar to the rich, coconut, fish, spices and chili elixir that takes so long to make. But I let logic supersede my welling desire to ridicule. He is, after all, a committed eater both respected and knowledgeable about local food. Plus he’s Singaporean Chinese, so I figure he might know a thing or two. Prima Taste?

Just hours later I found myself scanning the rows of instant soups. I counted 9 brands of laksa, each claiming to be authentic. Some were better packaged than others – even going beyond cellophane and opting instead for a box (with essentially the same ingredients). I found the Prima Taste laksa and – purely in the name of food science – grabbed four, hid them beneath the toilet paper in my shopping cart and absconded as quickly as I could.

In the kitchen I examined the package more closely. The instructions were clear and simple and the level of fat suggested that this did, indeed, have some real laksa ingredients (read: this stuff is really bad for the waistline).
As this was an impromptu and somewhat dubious experiment, I did not have additions which are de rigueur in any decent laksa: fishcake, tofu, prawn and laksa leaves. So I decided to first taste the laksa as it was presented in the package, then add other ingredients from the fridge; a little cooked chicken, some sliced porkballs and fresh coriander.

The package consisted of packed Laksa premix powder, laksa spice paste smelling of balachan and a round block of nicely formed noodles. Still doubtful, I gently cooked the paste before adding the premix and water.

The noodles plumped and thickened in minutes as the broth roiled. And in just seven minutes I had before me a surprisingly fragrant pot of soup.















In the bowl, the laksa was both visually tantalizing and tasty. The noodles had a firm bite but then softened in the mouth, delivering a well incorporated noodle-to-broth balance.  The curry itself had a rich coconut background against which the pronounced seafood and spice tastes might almost fool one into thinking it had been made with the real thing. The spice level was also well defined; lighter than most authentic versions (presumably toned down for a mass market) but piquant enough to satisfy your average chili craving.

When I slurped my last noodle and drained the bowl of any remaining drops of the bright orange broth I realized that somewhere in the midst of my meal I had forgotten my predisposition against packaged soup. The laksa was, indeed, delicious, in a last minute, whip-it-up-at-home sort of way. And while it may not displace the toiling of laksa masters who have for generations been carefully blending fresh ingredients into the masterpiece that is well-made laksa, it will also not make the great Janggut roll in his grave. 

In other words – much as it pains me to say – Prima Taste Laksa is worthy of a spot in my quick-cook kitchen cupboard.


On the food trail of Singapore restaurants


From the Boathouse's rooftop bar, Prelude
Despite that so much information about Singapore’s food and dining scene is on the net, it’s sometimes hard to decide on new sit-down places to eat which are both exciting and fit the budget. The result for many is a restaurant rut. “That’s just missing out on opportunities,” says Desi Wentink, Director of DiningCity.com. “People need to pull themselves out of that rut and try something completely different.” Which pretty much sums up DiningCity.com’s mission of defining a broader middle and upper-level go-to restaurant market throughout Singapore. 

DiningCity.com is one of Singapore’s premier on-line restaurant reservation services, with up to 90 fine dining establishments currently on their roster and more being added weekly. “We carefully select restaurants who meet our quality and service standards,” explains Wentink. "If they don't make our grade, they don't make the list." The on-line site includes photographs and menus to give diners a clear idea of where they are going before they get there. “It eliminates the uncertainty,” says the business’ thirty-something Dutch Director.

A fleet of BMW's took us to great food
But DiningCity.com doesn’t stop there. “To help people discover new restaurants we started  Singapore Restaurant Week, where twice a year diners can try out unfamiliar restaurants for a minimal investment.” Restaurant Week participants – including some of Singapore’s newest and best eateries – offer premium three course menus for a fixed price ($35 for dinner; $25 for lunch). Bookings are made through a designated site (www.restaurantweek.sg) which offers real-time reservations with a minimum of ease. It’s been done in Europe and the United States, and even here in Singapore when, last March, more than 24,000 bookings were made in the one-week period. This year is expected to be even greater.

To give an idea of just how terrific discovering new restaurants during Singapore Restaurant Week is, DiningCity.com recently took a few of us on a food tasting trail of three often overlooked establishments. “Restaurant week is a time for exciting discovery of great food and service.” Wentink explained in the back seat of one of the several BMW 745’s which whisked us between venues.

Desi Wentink & Garibaldi Chef Roberto Galetti
We started at Garibaldi Italian Restaurant and Bar (36 Purvis Street) where chef/owner Roberto Galetti indulged us with sea scallops in a pool of cauliflower purée topped with a dollop of smoked caviar, and accompanied by a gentle truffle/pumpkin soup. The smooth and balanced flavor of the sweet pumpkin, earthy truffle and tickling cream paved the path for perfectly cooked scallops, sweetened by its cauliflower bath and sharpened with the delicate pop of caviar. Combined with a Torres Fransola Sauvignon Blanc 2008 provided by Culina, the starter was a masterful flavor experience and a teaser to just how good the restaurant is.

Novus chef Stephan Zois
Next was our unknown destination for the main course. We pulled through the gates of Singapore’s magnificent National Museum and to the doors of NoVus Restaurant and Bar, where European cuisine is honed to a modern edge (93 Stamford Road in the National Museum). Tempting as it was, I by-passed the smoked duck confit with potato gratin and wild mushrooms, and the celeriac of wild mushroom and cannelloni fondant, opting instead for Berkshire pork belly. It rested luxuriously on a fluffy bed of saffron risotto, perfectly ocher in color and with a perfect balance of texture and wetness. The pork was moist and rich and melted luxuriously in my mouth with almost no chew. Accompanying it was a careful mélange of tiny seasonal veg and a kerchief of Joselito ham adding depth with its subtle saltiness. And as if reading my mind, Chef Stephan Zoisl rested a wafer of pork crackling atop the masterpiece to add that porky crunch that I so deeply craved. Culina’s recommended 2007 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano by Ruffino Lodola Nuova was a perfect partner.

We ended the evening overlooking Marina Bay and the spectacular downtown skyline from Prelude rooftop bar at the Boathouse (Waterboat House, 3 Fullerton Rd.). A savarin of  caramelized apples with vanilla ice cream, accompanied by Ruffino Serelle Vin Santo del Chianti 2006, made for a sweet close to a sweet night of dining discovery.

I asked Wentink if she had experienced any disappointments with restaurants participating in prior Restaurant Weeks. ““Diners in Singapore know the difference between good food and a scam so the restaurants roll out the red carpet for them,” she replied. “But there was one place that skimped on the discounted menu in our first Restaurant Week. They quickly realized their mistake and begged us to be included in the next one, at which time they blew everybody away!”

Singapore Restaurant Week will run from 9 to 16 October 2011 with nearly 100 participating eateries. Bookings can be made online from 21 September 2011 at www.restaurantweek.sg. In the meantime, click over to DiningCity.com to get a head start on some of the great restaurants you've never been to.

Cuy in Pisaq, Valle Sagrado Peru

Cuy al horno and potatoes -- the way it's been cooked for a thousand years

People recoiled at the notion, their faces contorted with expressions of revulsion. I couldn’t understand why. “It’s just a guinea pig!” I explained. “No different than eating a squirrel or rat.” More pained faces at the comparison.

But in Peru – especially in the high altitude Andes region – there is no such reaction. Instead you see smiles and licking of lips. Because in Peru guinea pig – known as Cuy (pronounced “coo-yi”)  is not just a staple of mountain dining but a delicacy respected by all who appreciate the wonders of this country’s culinary offerings – which is to say, some of the best food on the planet.

Pre-cooked cuy in its cute little living form.
Cuy is not a shock value food in Peru. It’s an age-old part of the everyday diet in the mountain regions including such famous places as Cuzco. It’s even popular at lower elevations like in Lima, where it can be found in local neighborhood joints to high-end gourmet establishments. Well-heeled Limeños may at first say they don’t eat cuy, but will subsequently admit that they love it once the meat is removed and served fancy-like. That’s loco, I say – one should understand the origins of their culinary desire. And with cuy, that means having it the way it’s been eaten for centuries – whole.

A wood oven dreams are made of.

 So when in the Andean village of Pisaq in the Valle Sagrado we heard there was a guy down a narrow alley who roasts cuy al horno all day long, I was off like a shot to find him. I almost walked past the old wooden gate that opened into a cobblestone courtyard until, at the far end, I spotted an adobe barn housing a large stone and mud oven. The orange glow of wood burning inside lured me closer. It was an oven Mario Batali would kill for. The mud and straw bricks were made by hand, the oven’s perfect dome was stacked and set individually a hundred years ago by Indians who learned the skill from their fathers and grandfathers and ancestors before them. The outside was charred black from decades of smoke and near constant cooking. A trail of soot curled out of the opening and upward into the barn. This was the real deal, where the food cooks to perfection almost by itself, as if tended by spirits of the Inca who figured it all out centuries before.

Bread fresh from the oven.
This courtyard behind some local storefronts was not a restaurant but rather just a place where they cook simple food for locals to buy. But the industrious owner did have the good sense to set a couple of beat up tables off to one side, so we were all set. He was busy maneuvering his long wooden paddle deep inside the oven. With the smoothness of a gondolier he moved the paddle in and out until finally removing a dented steel sheet pan of freshly baked bread. The loaves were small, oval and golden brown. Tapping the thin crust returned a deep, resonating sound, indicating soft, steaming bread inside. Only a great oven can produce such things of beauty.

Roasted Cuy stuffed with simple herbs and some potatoes alongside.
Working the wood oven.
He set the bread aside, slipped the paddle back in and pulled out another sheet pan, this one lined with six fresh roasted cuy and a pile of locally-grown potatoes. He slid the pan down onto the ground by his feet as steam trialed upwards carrying a rich porky/charred/meaty aroma. The cuy were stretched out, giving them a surprising length. Their feet curled into clawed fists and their mouths, wide open, revealed long sharp teeth. If you taste your food first with your eyes but go no further, these were not especially delectable.

Fresh roasted Guinea Pig -- it's what's for lunch!
Until my gaze drifted downward to the skin below the shoulders – where the visual “taste” began to change. The gorgeous golden sheen of the skin, still bubbling beneath it’s crispy surface was enough to bring the most ardent roast pork lover to his knees. It exuded taste and texture, making my mouth water like Pavlov’s pet beside a ringing bell. The creature was small, but to my hungry eyes it looked like a feast of flavor.

Raising cuy requires little effort, space or special food.
Cuy is a more logical alternative to other meat for the residents of the high hills of Peru’s Andes. Raised for food as far back as 5000BC, the nutrition-to-weight value of a cuy is very high and they happily survive on local grasses and vegetable scraps from the houshold. More importantly, farming cuy requires little space or special care – they are often raised indoors –  and reproduce, well, like rodents. So growing cuy for food makes good sense for local farmers and, of course, tastes great.

The man offered to cut it up for me, his old iron knife at the ready. Quartering the beast revealed inside the body cavity a thin lining of local green herbs and garlic that he had stuffed in before cooking. He handed the pan of cuy to me with a few potatoes and an aji amarillo (spicy chilli pepper) stuffed with smashed potatoes, corn and peas.

Crispy skin like roasted pork, followed by succulent meat.
The first bite of cuy started with a profoundly satisfying crunch of skin, combined with a subtle sensation of eucalyptus from the wood in the oven. Immediately following was a moist penetration into succulent meat which appeared exactly like pork. The flavor was rich and deep, much like suckling pig, only lighter and even more delicate. The herbal infusion added a hint of vegetation suggestive of what the animal ate in life. From head to toe the cuy was luscious, not at all gamey and delivered a full-on meaty experience -- with virtually no fat yet with the rich flavor as if there was. One bite and my kids jumped in, followed by my wife. And when we were done there was little left but claw and bone.

From skin to bone (except the head), cuy resembles fantastic pork.
There is a lot of mystery around the name for this tasty food source, as it is neither related to a pig nor comes from Guinea. But before I finished chewing I realized – perhaps – why the guinea pig is called what it is. Looking past its cute little furry appearance, its semblance is very much porcine. From the color and texture of its flesh to the crispness of its skin and the flavor of its meat, cuy is like miniature pork. But not just any pork; like prized tukusen toriniku pork, so tender and juicy and filled with flavor. So perhaps its name was coined in a little village like Pisaq – a plate-sized personal pig waiting to be devoured just as they have been forever. 

Good vibrations on Pagoda Street – Chuan Garden Sichuan Restaurant


To many, Singapore’s Chinatown consists primarily of Pagoda Street and a few cross streets with knickknack stores and mediocre eateries bulging onto the sidewalk. Except when showing out-of-towners around, locals tend to avoid these eateries along the trinket trail – we see them as tourist traps, overpriced or just plain “un-cool” to be caught dining at.

But some restaurants in this part of Chinatown get a bad rap just because of their location. Take for example Chuan Garden Restaurant, a glass fronted, air conditioned Sichuan restaurant immediately at the top of the MRT escalator on Pagoda Street. It’s hard to find a more touristy location this side of Marina Bay. There’s even a pedestal with a menu outside. But my mother always said “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” and so applying that principle here, I gave it a try.

Inside, Chuan Garden is pleasant: simple tables, tasteful décor and not much clutter. Our plan was to focus on a couple of fundamentals to gauge the kitchen’s Sichuan skill.  Contradicting our minority ang moh status in the restaurant, we told the waitress to give us authentic Sichuan heat; not some tamed-down tourist version.

We started with a classic Mapo Doufu which to me is a Sichuan basic which forecasts the quality of my pending meal. The tofu was cubed larger than typical, giving ample surface area to hold the spicy chili oil and finely minced beef. The initial taste attack was complex and savory, if not a bit salty even for this dish. The chili heat unwound slowly, starting as a warm sensation accompanied with a hearty meat and scallion flavor. From there it elevated to a medium burn as the oil coated the back of my palate and worked its way down. Perhaps hot by the tourist standards, we found it to be pleasantly piquant but not overwhelming (was our heat level mandate lost in translation?). Then the third layer of taste – Sichuan peppercorn (hua jiao) – revealed itself with its hallmark vibrato of quivering inside my mouth, and I started to relax about the food. The heat level stalled just below medium-high but delivered enough other flavor and silky tofu texture to make up for its spicy shortcomings.

La Zhi Ji
We moved on to another basic Sichuan requirement:  La Zhi Ji. To me a plate of these crispy chicken pieces buried in a mountain of dried chilies is one of the most exciting Sichuan dishes I know, because eating it is both a challenge and a dare. The challenge: to dig through the pile of fiercely hot chilies and find the golden chunks hidden within; the dare: to resist devouring chopsticksful of the maliciously titillating chilies themselves.


The all-dark-meat chicken was perfectly crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, delivering excellent texture and chew factor. The red chilies imparted a satisfying, but utterly bearable fire. A scattering of sesame seeds, scallions and a few hua jiao added freshness and a little numbness to each bite. But as good as it tasted, something was missing. And it took a few minutes before I realized just what that was: the thrill of the hunt.

A platter of La Zhi Ji should bring out the child in those of us who like to play with their food. Finishing this dish should spark an emotional  rollercoaster of disappointment and triumph: the dejected sense of failure when desperately digging for a final, elusive scrap of chicken, and the heroic exuberance of actually finding one. It makes the dish exactly what Sichuan food should be: exciting and fun! But without enough chilies to lose the chicken in, Chuan Garden’s La Zhi Ji left me feeling somehow shortchanged; like being handed a free prize at the carnival rather than winning it myself. I wanted to work for my pain!

Mala Frog Legs
But if the volume of chilies amongst the chicken fell short, the hua jiao peppercorns in the Mala frog legs made amends. The dish was presented in a raised bowl, heated beneath and sizzling deep in the bottom. Silky frogs legs were nestled between a bite sized medley of green and red capsicum, cubes of chayote, fiery red chilis and a very generous handful of whole garlic cloves. They were cooked to perfection and just so Ma! The richness of the frog legs permeated the glistening peppers and firm garlic with not a hint of swampy tang. Best of all, a fistful of hua jiao was tossed in and – like sirens temping wayward seafarers to steer toward the rocky shores and their certain demise – their flowery redolence lured our craving lips closer to repeated helpings despite the searing pain. The dish steamed beneath our noses, the spice level skyrocketed as our sweat pores loosened, and the numbing vibrations in the tissue of our lips accelerated to staccato pounding on the roof of our mouths. Finally we had reached the pinnacle of the Chengdo mountain and suffered the full-on heatfest of our cravings. And it hurt so good!

Indeed, straying further from Chinatown’s touristy center leads to excellent food from the motherland and beyond. But while Chuan Garden may not fill the (sadly empty) shoes of such Sichuan stalwarts as say, Ba Yu Ren Jia, it’s good to know that even amidst the tourist fervor of Pagoda Street, there is good food to be found.

Chuan Garden Restaurant, 79 Pagoda Street, Singapore