The first time I walked past Ah Seng Bak Kut Teh, I was on my way somewhere else and didn’t really notice it. (Also, I was still half full from porridge.) But after several circles round the few blocks, trying to find a Thai place that Google Maps insists is right here, I give up, and en route to giving up I happen upon the place again. Oh, what the hell.
Only after I’ve ordered and sat down do I notice the decor. The counter is done like the façade of an old building in Chinatown or Geylang, complete with faux windows. There are old school advertisements framed on the walls. Flying Spaghetti Monster help us – the hipster virus has even got to the BKT joints now. But is it just a surface infection, a trendy skin rash, or has it gotten all the way in?
Two serendipitous encounters came together to make this dish – one from months ago, one from this morning. The first was Taiwanese XO sauce, a mash-up of chili with several sorts of dried seafood, a specialty of the seafood-rich Penghu Islands. Last year a friend gave us two jars of the stuff; there’s still half a jar in the fridge.
Then, while out buying shallots and lemongrass at the wet market, I came across bags of beautifully mottled baby brinjals. (They’re called graffiti eggplants, it turns out. The more you know.) We don’t even eat brinjals usually, but I just couldn’t resist.
Their partnership was inevitable. One is a soft, Ditto-esque flavour mimic, taking after whatever accompanies it. The other is light spice and sweetness surfing on a vast, surging wave of seafood umami. They fight hunger.
Most restaurants pay attention to how they taste, and many to how they look. But in Singapore at least, the question of how they sound – the presence of music, its type, its volume – tends to be neglected. But precisely because I have low expectations here, I cannot decide if Hungry Bazterdz is intentionally having the Backstreet Boys serenade my first sandwich-eating experience with them. Is it neglect, or inspiration?
They do switch to a slower, chiller soundtrack that’s more to my taste when I visit again, not that it matters. Idiot that I am, I come in at the start of the CBD lunch rush. I only hear the music vaguely, amid the frantic lunchtime chatter, the ringing of bells and the calling of numbers as the staff try to match sandwiches to hungry people. I’m practically sitting on two other people and being shoved into the wooden ledge on the wall that serves as a table, trying to find angles for photos without accidentally molesting anyone.
It’s the sort of dining experience that I normally hate. So would I do it again at Hungry Bazterdz? Hell yes.
There’s nothing quite like dessert to make old Babette ponder the big questions of life. In the case of Poppy Pops, the obvious question is – is it better to serve ice cream in a cup or cone, or on a stick? This is an important question, for from an objective perspective, popsicles are clearly worse. The whole ice cream is exposed, providing a bigger surface area for melting. Licking is an ungraceful activity that only speeds up the melting, after which gravity naturally pulls the melted ice cream onto the hand that’s holding it. And you can’t take a small sample of a popsicle, either.
It’s a poor arrangement, but for one thing. It looks great. It’s photogenic, it shows off the ice cream. And in the days of Instagram, maybe that’s enough. Thankfully Popppy Pops doesn’t stop at merely good looking. They work a little harder.
I don’t really remember when my mum came up with this recipe, but I do remember what it was like having this for the first time. I remember we didn’t have the ingredients to make another soup, and anyway there was a bunch of celery that needed using.
Why that celery was there to start with, I have no idea. Western celery, the thick sort, has never been big in our kitchen; even now we mostly use it just for this, or for stir-fries. But its aroma – clean, fresh, botanic – really does a lot for this soup. Most hot soups are great for chilly days when it’s raining outside; far fewer are suitable when the sun is blazing away. This is one of them. (That it’s full of vegetables is nice too.)
New food trends hit Singapore every so often, with lots of fire and smoke and everything. But more interesting, to me, is the process after – the quiet percolation of trendy foods throughout the market, the process of food stalls catching up to the restaurants. The first wave of imitations are often off the mark. But then comes another iteration, and another – hungry mouths driving ambitious hands.
Many cuisines don’t ever make it to this stage; it’s the ones that do that are truly established. Japanese is one of them. And where Japanese katsudon is concerned, Washoku Goen feels like a culmination of that process – food court Japanese that is properly honed, not least because it is Japanese.
I’ve been playing a game of hide and seek with KOKI Tamagoyaki for a while, albeit in my own mind. Twice I’ve come too late for there to be any of their choux puffs. But this time I’m here – five minutes before the teatime offer ends, when the shelves are full of the goods. Yes.
Koki is, as the name suggests, a tamagoyaki place – serving the square-pan, rolled, mildly sweet Japanese omelettes with a range of toppings. Except that even now its dessert options – choux (or ‘shuu’) puffs – are already overshadowing the egg dish. (Honestly, take a look at the Burpple reviews of the place. How many tamagoyaki pics do you see? Precisely.)
As I typed this first paragraph, I was full. I was so full my stomach pressed lightly against my chin. So full that it didn’t feel like merely a weight, but pressure, pushing out in every direction. So full that the very thought of eating food, or drinking, was anathema.
Now, barely 5 hours later, and I am hungrily eyeing the box of pineapple tarts on the table. Being insatiable is, of course, the whole point of Chinese New Year. There should be only addition, never subtraction. People greet each other with wishes for perpetual surpluses – not that we’ve got enough to live comfortably, but that we’ve got more than that. Preferably more than ever previously possessed. More, more, more.
What are the odds? First venture into the northeast – that wild, desolate land of half a million people – in 2017, and after wandering about in HDB estates as I remembered from my childhood, I strike gold. Gloopy, ivory-coloured gold.
(Actually, the odds were well in my favour. It’s called internet research and it often works.)
Sin Heng Kee reminds me of another northeastern spot I enjoy, namely Lau Wang Claypot Delights. The two share similar origin stories – claypotting and porridging their way from a single stall to taking over a whole coffeeshop niche. Their menus even overlap slightly, with Sin Heng Kee having a few claypot items. So clearly the moral is – to be successful in Singapore’s food scene, sell stuff in claypots. Or be a hipster cafe. Better still, a hipster claypot-serving cafe. Is that not yet a thing? Get on it, people.
It is absolutely pissing down outside, and with my usual foresight and forethought, I am stuck. As the clouds gathered above Bukit Timah, I dithered my way around a range of possible choices, before heading for the one which would be hardest to escape in case of rain. For you can’t get out of Crown Bakery & Cafe without a car if it pours. It’s right in the middle between two MRT stations and there’s no covered way, not even to the bus stop.
I am stuck. I might even have to get me another of their pastries. And you know what, that’s perfectly fine by me.