It has been 8 years since I started eating sushi. Like most Teochew Ah Hia, the thought of laying aside a nice hot bowl of porridge for expensive slices of raw fish was a bit of a mental hurdle. But since I was a budding food blogger then, I thought that I better start learning how to eat sushi since it was starting to get really popular.
It's not everyday that you find an adventurous cook like chef John. Our mid week makan group has been on the zi char trail for the last two years and our experience has been that most zi char places will offer the usual, tried and tested selection of dishes like fish head curry, salted egg sotong, cereal prawns, sambal kangkong, etc. Not many are willing to take a risk by offering something a little out of the box.
Peranakan Khek: Nonya Kueh for the Next Generation
It is good to know that there is a new generation of Singaporeans who are passionate about traditional cuisine and striving to bring it to the next level. Leading the charge is Chef Malcolm Lee who won a Michelin Star for Candlenut restaurant last year. But winning the Michelin Star was more than just a personal achievement, it also brought international recognition for peranakan cuisine.
The idea of using basmati rice for nasi lemak is not new. Selera Rasa Nasi Lemak at Adam Road Food Centre had built its reputation upon it and even managed to win the patronage of the Sultan of Brunei! What is surprising is that aren't more nasi lemak stalls capitalising on Selera Rasa's idea after so many years.
My quest for the origins of Singapore hawker dishes has brought me to this BBQ seafood stall at Yuhua Village Food Centre where I met the lady who claimed to be one of the first hawkers to serve BBQ Stingray in Singapore!
I still remember the bad old days in the 70's when there was only one type of bread. Those were the days before Gardenia introduced sliced white bread which was "so good you can eat it on its own". In those days, when mum told me to go buy bread, it meant running down to the kek ai (grocery store) to pick up a loaf of traditional kaya toast bread which the lady would slice on the spot.
Once upon a time, there was a man who ran a very successful restaurant serving traditional Cantonese style food. This man, Mr Chai Kok Hoong, had two sons and he brought them up in the kitchen. He taught one son how to use the wok and the other how to steam the food. Each son was to specialise in his own area of the kitchen and wasn't allowed to encroach on the other's territory.
You really can’t keep a good cook out of the kitchen for too long! When I last wrote about Charlie’s Peranakan in 2009, he was already planning to retire citing that rentals was getting too high and he was getting tired. He went on to close Charlie’s Peranakan a few months after my story was published and disappeared from the Singapore food scene for a while.
Bak chor mee has always been an understated Singaporean dish. At least it was until last year when Hillstreet Tai Hwa Minced Pork noodle become one of the first street foods to be awarded a Michelin Star! Suddenly, this beloved Singaporean dish which had never quite been a poster-boy for Singapore food is thrown onto the world stage.
The couple behind Si Yang Steam Soup have been diligently serving their steam soup since 1982 and had built quite a good business at Ang Mo Kio Blk 728 before the coffeeshop was sold and they had to move to their present location. Since then, their business has dropped by so much that they are considering retirement!
I think the challenge for anyone entering the zi char business is to be able to come up with one or two signature dishes with the ability to capture people’s attention. You Huak managed to do it with their seafood white bee hoon, New Ubin with their beef fried rice and Royal J with their fried porridge. Just being competent in the usual compendium of zi char dishes will only get you so far.