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
Singapore 160054