Now That's Italian! A Foodwalk down Arthur Avenue in the Bronx

Now That's Italian! A Foodwalk down Arthur Avenue in the Bronx

I recently took a Foodwalk with a couple of my favorite fellow foodwalkers to explore what is known by many as New York's real Little Italy and referred to simply as "Arthur Avenue."

I recently took a foodwalk with a couple of my favorite fellow foodwalkers to explore what is known by many as New York's real Little Italy and referred to simply as "Arthur Avenue." North of Manhattan in New York's northernmost borough, the Belmont area of the Bronx is a mixed neighborhood that offers a gritty view of one of those parts of the city that supports all others. And buried in the center of it all, starting at 187th Street from Arthur Avenue across to Prospect Avenue, is an age-old enclave of tight-knit neighbors and crowded shops offering some of the best Italian eats in New York..

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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.

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Black Is Beautiful - the secret behind Singapore's great kaya toast

Black Is Beautiful - the secret behind Singapore's great kaya toast

The loaf tops are charred uniformly and a certain, sumptuous smokiness fills the air as they cool. It’s Blackhead bread, an old Singaporean tradition that they’ve been baking for decades.

There's something about the toast in Singapore. With every steaming sweet kopi one can get thin-sliced bread toasted over open heat to a brittle crispness on the outside and a warm tenderness in the middle. A smear of kaya and butter and it's a thing of breakfast beauty. But what makes it so good? I mean, it's just baked bread, right? Wrong -- if it's from Sing Hon Loong.

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Ice Cream at Opposite Ends of the Earth

Ice Cream at Opposite Ends of the Earth

Two different people, two different places, one idea so stunningly similar it’s hard to imagine they are not one and the same. Who knew ice cream could be so exciting?

The story is remarkable: two men whom to this day have never met; never even heard of each other. Both about the same age, with careers, kids and obligations to keep them busy. One on this side of the earth, the other 9,000 miles away. And each with a dream for making people happy – with ice cream. 

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KF Seetoh: Singapore’s shepherd of street food

KF Seetoh: Singapore’s shepherd of street food

Some call him the Guru of Grub; others, the Makankaki Master, but KF Seetoh, by any name, is Singapore’s most recognized and celebrated expert on one of the country’s greatest and most beloved national treasures: food.

Since 1996 Seetoh has dedicated his life to writing, photographing and understanding the street food of Singapore, heading to every place where queues for food form. “Back then there was no guide to the food here,” Seetoh explained as we shared some carrot cake at Makansutra’s own Glutton’s Bay food center beside the Esplanade. So he was inspired to compile information about the food and the hawkers. The hardest thing was identifying the places to try. “It took a lot of talking to people on the street, to taxi drivers and to people cooking food,” he said with a broad smile. The result: Makansutra, Seetoh’s undisputed go-to guide for all things hawker in this land of the food obsessed. Over the years, Makansutra has sold countless copies, guiding locals and foreigners alike to hawker food that is good, great and “die, die, must try.”

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Foodwalking with Nym – Beach Eats

Foodwalking with Nym – Beach Eats

It’s always fun to foodwalk with food experts; especially if I can take them somewhere they’ve never been. And such was the case with Nym Punlopruska, Bangkok’s Siren of Street food.

It’s always fun to foodwalk with food experts; especially if I can take them somewhere they’ve never been. And such was the case with Nym Punlopruska, Bangkok’s  Siren of Street food, when she was recently back in Singapore to update one of her books. I wanted to take her to some place she’d never been, just as she had done with me in her hometown. That’s no easy task with a girl like Nym, who has written more than a dozen books on food, has been Andrew Zimmern’s guide and fixer on Bizarre Foods, and is fearless in both what and where she’ll eat. In other words, my kind of Foodwalker.

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Arcot Nawab: Feasting on the Food of Kings

Arcot Nawab: Feasting on the Food of Kings

A meal at Arcot Nawab Restaurant is a feast of royal food from the Kingdom of the Moguls.

I love it when the table turns. Recently, legendary siren of Thai street food, Nym Korokat Punlopruska guided me through the streets of Bangkok for great food. If you know much about Bangkok street food, or have watched Andrew Zimmern eat his way through it, you’ve seen Nym. She was in Singapore this week, so now it was my turn. And I knew a place that is so new it couldn’t possibly be in her excellent food guide, but so exceptional that it needs to be.

 

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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!

Joo Chiat Foodwalk - Wandering the tasty trail!

There are so many fascinating neighborhoods scattered like villages across the little island of Singapore. Each is known its own identity, character and excellent food. But in Joo Chiat the food is so good that people come from all the other neighborhoods just to eat.

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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?

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.