I am part of that power which eternally wills evil, and eternally works good.
— ‘Faust’, Goethe (1749 – 1832)
The word ‘sin’ gets thrown about very easily when it comes to food. We don’t hear much talk about murderers being sinners nowadays, outside of a church. But dark chocolate, pepperoni, fried food, a good grilled cheese? All sin. No doubt this is partly because we recognise that food – even the sinful ones, the luxurious and tasty – is always a good thing. A city with many of the avaricious, wrathful or envious is a hard place to live. A city with many of the gluttonous tends to be brilliant.
Alter Ego, a new concept by the people behind A Poké Theory, plays on this theme. The promo and website play up the contrasts in its menu, but it seems a little ahead of its time here. Elsewhere it is the absurdities of the clean eating cult that increases the tension over how ‘good’ your food is; Singapore, thankfully, has yet to be drawn into the stupidities of kombucha, gotu kola, sucka, etc. So without that tension, Alter Ego is really a place where people who work on poké all the time decide to work on other things as well. That’s not as dramatic, but it sure as hell works.
Singapore has been stressing me out a lot recently, and it was a recommendation and casual remark from my good friend that enlightened me as to why. She was trying to explain why she liked Noodle Cafe so much, though I can already see why from the menu and the general, slightly slapdash, effortlessly grungy interior.
‘I often come here alone, you know,’ she says. ‘I sometimes get a bowl of noodles and sit here for like an hour.’ That’s what it is! I haven’t found a home away from home, an alone spot.
Mind you, I’m fussy about my alone spots. As I am allergic to hipsters, my quiet spots have to be low-bullshit affairs – no ‘vintage’, no gimmicks. The food must be cheap and good. And it should be reasonably easy to access. In London, Mamuśka fit that bill almost perfectly. And these are the criteria I’ll be using for Noodle Cafe too.
There’s no lack of Korean TV shows, and one of my favourites is still Three Meals a Day, especially the Gochang season. It’s a fun show – the farming, the cute animals, four men bumbling about but in a positive way.
Then there’s the way Chajumma cooks, which is – for want of a less gendered term – just quite manly. There’s a big pot over a fire. You throw stuff (good quality stuff, of course) in it. Then you check if it’s cooked, and serve it up. It’s not careless cooking by any means; it’s attentiveness without neuroticism, mindful yet still relaxed. And it always looks so good.
Sadly I don’t live in a place where cabbages and Cheongyang chilies grow in the front yard, so a supermarket will have to do. That, and a Korean restaurant nearby which is willing to sell a tub of reasonably mature kimchi at a reasonable price.
Every time I visit a place, it is a pleasure for me to be able to chat with the boss. But it is probably not good for the boss to have nothing better to do than talk to me. So it is with Shanghai Renjia – they had just opened for the day, and I was the first and only person in for the entire meal. Then again, given the setting, it is perhaps no surprise.
So why this setting, downstairs of a HDB block in Ang Mo Kio? And what about the food? The boss – a retired engineer with salt and pepper hair – looks a little abashed at the second question. ‘Well I’m not an expert,’ he says. ‘It’s nothing special. It’s just my childhood flavours.’
You know, now that I think of it, there’s something the very friendly front-of-house said as I paid the bill which sounds a bit ominous. When I asked her if Let’s Meat Up was a new place, she beamed. ‘It opened one month ago. Our only outlet!’
No one says that last bit if there aren’t plans afoot to change it.
So that raises a question: seeing as Singapore’s food scene has got more chains than your average BDSM dungeon, how much should a new arrival be welcomed? On the plus side, Let’s Meat Up is aimed at a new niche for fast-ish food, namely robatayaki. That said, I have seen robatayaki restaurants, and the place looks nothing like one. The name robatayaki means ‘grilling around the stove edge’, but the standard elements – the open grill, ingredients all laid out – are missing. Which means there’s only the food to go on.
All young trees look the same; all old trees grow old in their own way. The same holds for housing estates too, the new ones all plagued by the dreary sameness of the mall, of chains upon chains – republics wherein food is had, for example, or boxes wherein toast is contained. Far better are the old neighbourhoods, especially the ones with shop space downstairs where some of my favourite places have sprung, like Tachinomiya in Kovan or Percolate in Bedok.
And Block 151 in Ang Mo Kio has got two such places. Shanghai Renjia I will leave to a later review, mostly because it wasn’t open when I dropped by. Meanwhile Soi 19 is not just open but quiet, almost brooding in the grey light of morning before the lunch crowd descends upon it. All is as it should be – a stack of pig’s trotters neatly arrayed, still soaking in the dark red broth. The options for seasoning your own food Thai-style – pickled chillis, the devil’s own chilli dust, fish sauce – also laid out. Oh, and the lardons. Can’t forget the lardons.
Roti John is one of those strange foods for me, in a category with lor mee, shengjianbao and shakshouka. They are all things I love, but somehow never seek out; I can function for years without particularly craving them, but if I happen to be somewhere and they happen to be available, I know what I’m ordering. And at Al Ameen Eating Corner, where the menu can cause serious injury if dropped on your head, they have roti john.
The reason I was at Al Ameen has nothing to do with the food, even. Occupying a large space in an industrial park in Marsiling, it just happened to have good seats to the New Year fireworks show, especially in the ‘alfresco’ section (the extra tables that extend to the grass patch outside). But they do have roti john. 9 different ways, in fact.
Yes, yes, I know. I know what you’re going to ask. We’ve just passed Christmas, is it a little bit too early for a CNY-ish recipe? To which I say, pah! Zipdelah! Speth! Of course it isn’t too early.
If there’s one thing that makes Chinese New Year more bearable by far than the Westerners’ holiday season, it is that it doesn’t expect us to eat things we would actively avoid for the rest of the year. Who in their right mind roasts a turkey in March? There’s something better called chicken.
But there is always a space at the table for Pacific clams. Good old Siliqua patula, it turns out, is a particularly broad razor clam (a dagger clam, then?), and its exuberant springiness, the rich brine with a hint of meatiness in it, makes it good for a quick stir fry with just about anything. Just be sure not to fry it past the point of rubberiness.
It wasn’t my intention, actually, to buy something that would be useful in the winter solstice offerings to the ancestors. Rather I was running an errand and noticed that the old shop, whose peanut brittle was briefly but lovingly documented by the Straits Times, was along the way.
And in fact, arriving at Sze Thye makes me respect the ST people even more. For the shop, or at least the bit meant for the customers, is… not photogenic. The aesthetic is best described as ‘putting things wherever there’s room’ – neat piles of ingredients, everywhere, in plastic sacks and boxes. Finished goods lie in stacks of sealed plastic bags, on racks, in cardboard boxes, without labels. Mind, some hipster cafes spend wads recreating this look. So at least Sze Thye’s ugliness, unlike theirs, is authentic and effortless.
Cantonese culture is a culture of gourmands. They’ve got this saying that states it all – ‘if its back faces the sky, it is for man to eat’. But it isn’t quite as simple as that; the Cantonese don’t just eat everything, they put in the effort to eat it properly. Even when the ingredients are the height of conventionality – chicken, lettuce, plain white rice – you have to do it right.
And doing it right takes time, and a lot of work, which is why claypot places – never mind those that stick to charcoal, as Yew Chuan does – are now a rarity. Which is not to say it’s doing poorly. Quite the opposite; every table around me, when I visited, is pre-equipped with a bowl, a paddle for mixing the rice and a bit of chilli sauce that looks docile and tastes fierce.