Monday, 28 May 2012

Eating with an Old Friend

You’ve heard it said a million times…in Singapore things change very fast. And, if anything, this rate of change seems to be accelerating.

For a sentimental foodie hooked on nostalgia -- like me; it gets pretty rough, because everything you savored and remembered and held dear as a child would be gone someplace else, or gone altogether. So when I sniff something I recognize from way back, it’s understandable that my already high blood pressure gets even higher!

Ren Ji Food Store is a place I have been coming back to for more than 40 years. It serves mainly Teochew braised duck and offal. Back in the 70s, they were located at the crossing of Smith Street and Sago Street. Business was brisk then; the owner and her team of at least 10 workers would serve hundreds of customers in a single day. My favourite dish was braised duck heads. My cousins and I would buy ten or more heads for our afternoon snack, and if we couldn’t finish them, we would throw the remainder into plain porridge for extra flavor.

He Wu Mei, the current owner, is in her early 80s, yet runs the stall near single-handedly save for a helper. The crowds have dwindled at her present shop at Chinatown Complex, but she refuses to retire as the business keeps her going in life.

The food still tastes exactly as I remembered: the braised duck succulent and tender, the sauce light. I also remember Ms He’s ‘treasure box’ sitting in front of her stall -- a couple of containers half-filled with the braising sauce. Pick up a pair of chopsticks and dig into the dark, almost black, liquid; you will find ducks’ webs, gizzards, livers, pigs’ intestines, eggs -- a veritable witches’ brew. To me, this stuff alone is worth the trip to the stall.

The plain rice always came with hae bee hiam – a spicy fried powder made of dried shrimps and shallots -- spooned on top. Not many places serves this anymore, let alone free of charge with rice. The chilli sauce is not for the faint hearted; it’s garlicky, sour and hot. But it enhances the braised meat and sauce.

The average cost of a meal is about S$6 a person. For me, it’s worth every cent, because it not only it tastes good but it’s also a trip down memory lane.

Ren Ji Food Store
#02-140, Chinatown Complex
335 Smith Street

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Two Good to be True

You would never have expected a place like this to harbor a food gem. Back in the 70s and 80s, the Far East Plaza on Scotts Road was one of Singapore’s ‘IT’ spots – glam, hip and happening. Remember the so-called “Far East Kids”?

Today, the center of gravity has shifted to nearby Orchard Road, and the place is pretty forlorn. It’s also suffering an ‘identity crisis’: while the basement still caters to the young and fashionable, the other floors seem devoted to the crass tourist crowds. And the 5th level is given over to mostly mediocre food outlets. But there is one that stands out.

Yusuf & Arni’s Cafe has apparently been around since 2000, but I came to know of it only six years ago through a friend. What caught his eyes, and mine, was the Sotong Hitam – inky black and luscious. When tasted, it more than lived up to its looks…and has kept us coming back ever since!

Sotong Hitam (literally ‘Black Squid’ in Malay) is actually quite simple to prepare, needing a couple of ingredients -- onion, chilli, assam, belachan -- and of course ‘sotong’ or squid. Since the squid will be cooked in its own ink, the ingredients need to be fresh, and the cooking well controlled, or the meat might turn out tough and chewy.

In the version served at Yusuf & Arni’s, the sourness of assam is used to deftly balance the sweetness of the black ink, resulting in a gravy that’s smooth and thick and drips with the distinctive flavor of the ink.

Arni, who rules the kitchen, and Yusuf who tends to the café’s tiny dining area, believe in keeping with tradition and serving only the most authentic of home-style Malay dishes and snacks. We can stoutly vouch for that, because in our six-year patronage of their café, their cooking has yet to disappoint us in quality or heartfelt effort. Arni informs us that all her food is prepared at the shop itself, unlike others’ whose food is prepared elsewhere, or worse, provided by suppliers! Her dishes, she proudly maintains, are always fresh and piping hot.

After Sotong Hitam, our favorite was the fried chicken. This is another simple recipe that is often done brilliantly at home, yet is extremely hard to find in similarly superb form outside of home. It’s almost a cliché but good fried chicken needs to be moist and tender inside and dry and crispy outside – like the one here. Arni’s marinade also had a flavor that reminded me very much of old-style home cooking.

Nangka Lemak -- unripe jackfruit cooked in spicy coconut milk -- was another rare treat we found here. Not common even among Nasi Padang shops, I love this dish for the unique sweetness of the fruit combined with the poultry-like textures of the pulp, flesh and seeds.

In my opinion, the snacks alone make the journey to this eatery worth your while. The Goreng Pisang is one of their best sellers (it’s available from about 3pm onwards). Again, it has the flavors I remember from childhood, unlike the “updated” versions found elsewhere, and it comes loaded with crispy tiny fritters.

Arni’s kuehs are mostly from recipes given to her by family and friends. The Kueh Lopes – triangular glutinous rice cakes coated in grated coconut and bathed with Gula Melaka syrup – was another great dessert, with the right amount of bite to its rice, and accompanied by strongly flavored syrup.

As with all good food, be prepared to fork out a little bit more for the meal. The average spend per person is around S$7 inclusive of drink. But…this is part of Orchard Road, so nothing comes cheap.

Yusuf & Arni’s Café
#05-119 Far East Plaza
Scott Road, Singapore

Friday, 18 May 2012

An Afternoon of Food, Champagne and Company

It had been a while since I visited the Marina Mandarin hotel. Although one of my favorite Italian restaurants – the Ristorante Bologna – is located at the hotel, the Marina Mandarin had, for whatever reason, fallen off my radar. That was until a friend of mine invited me there for lunch -- to its Chinese restaurant, Peach Blossoms.

And a fine meal it was indeed, made more interesting by my dining mates, one of whom was Floriane Jacquart, a winemaker from Champagne, France. Floriane brought with him some very interesting wines for the meal.

Brut Mosaique and Rose from Champagne Jacquart were the first two aperitifs served. Made from a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the Brut Mosaique was a good conversation starter. Relatively light with a hint of orange flower, it was a great white for a hot humid afternoon, with a long-lasting fruity finish.

I have lately developed a soft spot for Rose; I find it a versatile drink especially for our weather. The Rose we had went well with our appetizer, particularly the prawn dumpling. The wasabi prawn however was a disappointment, as its crust didn’t live up to its supposed crispiness.  I was told that Rose is gaining popularity not only with the ladies but also the gentlemen of Europe and America. Seems if you wanna be hip, Rose is the way to go…

When it comes to roast pork belly, I have two ways of eating it: dipped in mustard, whose rich, creamy taste brings out the porky flavor after the initial crunch of the crispy skin. Or, eaten neat with a pairing champagne. This time round, the Chardonnay in Blanc de Blancs 2005 did its job well; its citrus notes cleansing the oily aftertaste of pork and leaving a lingering fragrance.

The stir-fried pork shoulder in Sichuan sauce was a disappointment, its taste reminding me of most of the Sichuan restaurants in Singapore in the 70s. Where was the taste of Sichuan pepper and bean paste? It was just mild, and lacked the punch of the authentic version. The pairing champagne, Brut Vintage 2002, had a top note of fresh butter that proved an ideal companion to the fiery dish. Too bad the dish couldn’t deliver…but the wine managed to hold its own.

It’s hard to find good cod in Singapore these days. Most cod tastes “frozen” and it is even worse when the meat is overdone. This steamed silver cod was passable. Brut de Nominee 1999 was delicate to the nose; where the first sniff reminded me of vanilla ice cream. The taste was complex yet light and lingered longer than I expected.

While cordycep is too expensive for day-to-day dining, its flower is more affordable and gaining popularity in most Chinese restaurants. The spinach was decent but I wished the stock used to cook it could have been richer. The last champagne was Brut Vintage 1996. It was by far my favorite of the day, with its hint of masculine tobacco on the nose, and the delicate taste of coffee on the taste buds.

When the fried rice with seafood was served, the first thing that came to my mind was “Where is the wok hei?” “Wok hei” is the breath of the Chinese wok and a crucial element of fried rice. So, while the rice grains were well cooked, marks were surely lost in my books for this crucial oversight.

The dessert was jelly with plum; which unfortunately, had the air of a half-thought through finale to the otherwise interesting lunch.

Peach Blossoms
Marina Mandarin Singapore
Raffles Boulevard

All champagnes are from Champagne Jacquart

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Pennywort – Real Cool!

May marks the beginning of summer; Singapore sits almost squarely on the equator, so we do not enjoy the four seasons. However we do experience a kind of ‘summer’, with higher temperatures, between May and November.

When I was young, this would be the time of year when I suffered from ‘heat attacks’: my mouth would break out in ulcers, heat rash would ravage my body, and I’d suffer unexplained bouts of thirst.

As my family devoutly believed in balancing yin and yang in the body, they would prepare all kinds of food to ‘cool’ me and everybody else down. Unfortunately these would involve food I loathed: bitter Chinese herbal teas, bitter gourd, and centella asiatica, otherwise known as pennywort or 崩大碗  in Chinese.

We Chinese value the pennywort for its versatility; when made into a drink, it is believed to cool the body while at the same time purging all toxins from the blood.  It is also commonly used to treat cuts and injuries, where it is pounded to a paste and applied to cuts, swollen joints, and even acne.

In Sri Lanka, pennywort is used in their national food classic, mallung. Mallung is a spicy combination of shredded vegetables, chilli and coconut. Another common use of pennywort is kola kenda, a Sri Lankan porridge made of brown rice, coconut milk and sugar.

In Vietnam, pennywort is a common ingredient in salads and drinks.

In Singapore, it was made into a drink that was common on the streets before the 80s. The hawkers who sold cold drinks and desserts such as pineapple, grass jelly and ‘bird’s nest’ would add pennywort to their selection. The drink had an intensely raw flavor, and so my grandmother would ‘encourage’ me to drink it by saying it helped keep acne away. Being quite vain even as a young kid, I fell for it and drank the unappetizing concoction religiously. And it seemed to work: I hardly ever had acne throughout my teens – something my friends envied me for!

Sadly, pennywort drink has disappeared from the scene. I found this drink in Hong Kong last summer along Temple Street, the famous night market. In Singapore, pennywort is available at a shop in Tekka Market.

Pennywort Drink

Pennywort                  500 g, washed and drained dry
Water                          1½ litres
Rock sugar                  75 g

  1. Blend pennywort and water well.
  2. Sieve and boil the water for one hour.
  3. Add sugar, boil for another 5 minutes.
  4. Serve warm or cold.

Note:  The thickness and sweetness of the drink may be adjusted through the amounts of pennywort or sugar.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Fried Pork Sausage in Caul Fat

My grandfather died in his late 80s. He lived life to the fullest.

He survived World War II; stayed in the same well-paid job in the same company until he retired; raised a family with five children; and filled his retirement and twilight years with volunteer work. Life was simpler then.

When it came to food grandpa never stinged. We ate well with him around; he would pick the best part of the animal, select the freshest fish and prawn, bought the most seasonal vegetables, and always ensured that food was cooked to perfection. And that meant taste over health.

But -- he counted calories in his own way. He climbed the stairs even when there was an elevator. He walked for hours to visit his friends. He even got down on his hands and knees to clean the house floor with a rag and water. And, keeping an eye on us -- his naughty grand children -- was surely enough to burn off any remaining cholesterol in those arteries! Grandpa never had hypertension, diabetes or whatever: his body simply wore itself out from sheer age.

I guess the lesson grandpa left us was: you need to work hard to get rid of those calories and cholesterol…if you wanna indulge.

Here’s the sausage that grandma would make for grandpa as an appetizer to accompany his daily preprandial glass of brandy. In my family, we used caul fat in several ways. We would fry the caul fat to extract the oil and use it to cook mushroom stew; we would wrap chicken with caul fat before roasting to keep its skin moist; and in the recipe below, caul fat is used as a sausage skin.

Fried Pork Sausage in Caul Fat

Pork                            300 g
Lard                             100 g
Prawn                          200 g
Water chestnut           150 g, mashed and chopped coarsely
Corn flour                    2 tbsp
5-spice powder           1½ tsp
Salt                               1½ tbsp
Oyster sauce                1 tbsp
Pepper                         1 tsp
Spring onion                20 g
Egg                               1
Caul fat                         1, cut into 8 square pieces

1.    Cut pork and lard into 2-mm squares. Using the cleaver, chop the pork until coarse. Mix lard and minced pork together. Never mince lard or it will melt during frying. To have an easier way out, you could blend the pork using a electric chopper but chill the pork first before doing it.
2.    Clean prawn, rinse under running water for 30 minutes. This rinsing process will render the prawn meat crunchy. Cut into small pieces.
3.    Combine pork, lard, prawn and water chestnuts in a mixing bowl.
4.    Add seasoning, spring onion and egg, and using chopsticks mix the meat thoroughly in a circular motion in one direction. The mixture is ready when the meat turns gluey and paste-like in texture. Let it rest for 15 minutes.
5.    Place the piece of caul fat flat on a table. Spoon the mixture onto the caul fat sheet and roll it like a sausage.
6.    Repeat until the meat is used up.
7.    Steam sausages for 10 minutes. Drain and let it cool thoroughly.
8.    Deep fry until the sausage is crisp. Drain oil and cut into bite-size pieces.
9.    It can eaten on its own or dipped into chilli or tomato sauce.

Caul fat: to wash caul fat thoroughly, I normally spoon some corn flour and salt on the caul fat  
              and mix well. Rinse and drain it well.
Water chestnut: occasionally I would substitute it with Chinese pear or apple, which are sweeter in 

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Salted Fish Trotter Stew

When I was young, we always had a whole salted fish hanging in the kitchen like some dried up artifact from the museum. In fact, the smell of the salted fish and the well-used kitchen always gave me a comfortable feeling of home.
Salted fish was cheap, and it could keep, and was versatile. Needless to say it was a regular fixture on the dining table: steamed by itself or cooked in what seemed like 101 ways with meat and vegetables, or even in soups.

There are many kinds of salted fish in the market. The soft types have more pungent smells and intense flavors; they are great for steaming just on their own or cooked in combination with other meats, vegetables or fish. The hard types of salted fish usually need to be deep-fried before being consumed; they are great with fried bean sprouts or kailan.

Salted fish is no longer cheap; in Singapore and Malaysia, salted mackerel in the soft form are most prized. These particular variant comes from Malaysia and they are expensive.

My family firmly believed in not wasting any food; every part of the salted fish was put to good use, even the head. We’d cook the fish head in sauce or as a stew or soup. Here are two recipes that we usually prepared at home.

Salted Fish Pork Trotter Stew

Pork trotter (fore leg)            800 g, chopped
Garlic                                       ½ kg, whole
Fried salted fish                       3 tbsp.
Stock                                       3 cups

Salted Fish Sauce

Oil                                           6 tbsp.
Shallots                                   10, minced
Sugar                                       2 tbsp.
Garlic                                       5 minced
Salted fish/head                      200 g, bone removed
Water                                      ¼ cup

1.    Boil pork trotter for ten minutes. Drain and rinse the trotter thoroughly than dry it.
2.    Put trotter, 250 g of garlic, salted fish sauce and stock in a heavy saucepan. Rapid-boil the trotter for 10 minutes and continue to simmer for 1½ hours.
3.     Replace the remaining garlic and continue to simmer for another 30 minutes.
4.     Season it with sugar and salt.
5.     Serve the trotter with the garlic, and sprinkle fried salted fish over it before serving.

Salted Fish Sauce
1.     Sauté shallots and garlic until it turns translucent.
2.     Add sugar and continue to fry until it is caramelized.
3.     Add salted fish and water and simmer until it reduces by 1/3.
4.     Cool and chill for further use.