The sweltering, relentless heat. The whiff of char kway teow from a coffee shop as we passed by (more on that later). The crush of crowds at Jonker Street, the aroma of foods curling round old shophouses. And then the bright red bowl of asam fish at Restoran Nyonya Suan.
My dad and I spent three days in Melaka, and now – just a day after returning – I can remember just a few things without the aid of photos. Melaka has been a melting pot long before Singapore was even a thing; but while Singapore is still forging on into ever more turbulent and dynamic cultural mixing, Melaka has somewhat crystallised. The multiculturalism, having long soaked into its old bones, gains a certain retrospective clarity and solidity.
It is key to emotional health, I think, to understand that most things in life will turn out pretty badly. Things will come too early or too late. People will be maddening ciphers, their motivations inscrutable, their signals garbled, their best intentions catastrophic. We must convince ourselves of the ubiquity of unsuccess, so that when we happen upon a place like Char, every now and then, it feels all the better.
(Note: Now that I have your agreement on this, you will not mind that I was unable to take a picture of the char siew at Char. I know, I know. Such is life!)
I’ve heard about Char a while now, from friends and their friends who spoke in hyperbolic terms of the char siew. But they also told me it was ‘modern’. That, and a look at the location, curbed my enthusiasm. Great, I think. I’ll be eating lovely char siew in some half-arsed imitation warehouse.
As a fellow alumna of the User Experience Design Immersive once mentioned – once you learn about user experience, you end up analysing all sorts of things unconsciously in the UX frame of mind. Is it easily usable? Is it useful? How can it be improved on these two fronts?
And recently I’ve been thinking about the matter of holding your drink, after you buy it from a shop. It’s the sort of thing people don’t really think about, not until it goes wrong; in that respect, it’s a little like opening doors. (Which is a process marred by lots of bad design, as this video shows). So how, in Singapore, are drinks held?
This was an invited tasting. Much gratitude to the hosts, organisers and fellow guests.
Maybe I’m just a curmudgeon, but if you ask me, the history of bubble tea in Singapore is one long story of featuritis. Not too long ago we had milk tea, with or without those wonderful tapioca pearls, and that was that. Now I spend almost as long at the counter deciphering the available options as I do actually drinking the tea.
Of course, most of you know about LiHO now – though more as a function of mourning for Gong Cha, whose outlets will be replaced by the local brand. But when LiHO came with an invitation to try their cheese tea, I knew nothing about that. I was slightly conflicted. To be honest, it sounded gimmicky – just another topping for tea. Except… cheese. Even if I was skeptical, I felt I had to find out.
It’s not like Singapore has ever gone off eating fried stuff, but… on the way to the MRT and Serangoon, I find out that Four Fingers is setting up at Causeway Point. This means there must be more than 10 places in one mall where I can have fried chicken of some sort.
Which makes me wonder if we’re having too much of a good thing, especially when considering Fried Chicken Master (炸雞大獅). The Taiwanese concept has landed in NEX, clearly bent on representing one of the most popular dishes in the Taiwanese night market pantheon. But do we really need this? Does Fried Chicken Master (hereafter FCM) have something new to say about this street food staple?
On reflection, there was a period in my youth when Bukit Panjang actually figured quite prominently. I used to take piano lessons there, and when Bukit Panjang Plaza was still new, it was where I went for BBQ pork ribs. (Cafe Cartel doesn’t even exist anymore, I don’t think.)
But I haven’t been here for a decade, and so – after a Sunday afternoon stroll in Choa Chu Kang – Dad and I decide to head down. We try the Hillion first, but think better of braving those crowds and retreat to BPP, and to Ju Hao. A nice, grounded choice – it’s a lamian/xiao long bao joint. We know exactly what we’re in for.
Singapore’s urban jungle is so dense, its buildings so high and its people packed so tightly, that sometimes you miss things just a short walk from you. For a long time I’ve been whining (inwardly) about the lack of rosti in Singapore. It’s shredded potatoes for heaven’s sake. Why do I have to go to Marche and pay enormous amounts for that?
Or at least that’s my excuse for this glaring oversight – not only did I not know about Ivan’s Carbina, mere minutes away from my place; I didn’t even know there was a coffee shop there at all. It was only when I saw a video on Facebook that I knew. Rosti was there all the time; indeed, it’s been there for years.
Hokkaido is a fascinating part of Japan if you’re into history. Over the centuries it has been an enemy, a wild frontier, a place of occupation and colonisation. Even now, most place names on the island aren’t Japanese at all, but derived from the native (and sadly endangered) Ainu language. This includes Ishikari and Otaru, the namesake of Otaru Suisan.
Of course Hokkaido is also awesome for the foodie, with its bounty of seafood. But places that boast air-flown seafood from Japan are no longer a rarity here. It was more the promise of Ishikari-nabe, a mighty hit of umami, and the presence of a dining companion, that led us here. And oh boy does Otaru deliver.
I like wandering malls on those few holidays when most shops are closed – Christmas in London, CNY here. Maybe, as a reaction to the festival, it has the same logic as the people who go overseas during this period – just to get away from the socialising that would be necessary if they were here. It’s also interesting to see which few places are still open.
To find that Riverside Grilled Fish is among the open restaurants, though, is a real surprise. Of all the Asian imports in the Raffles City basement, only the ones from China and Taiwan showed up. But unlike neighbouring Din Tai Fung, Riverside was not rammed to the gates with white people. In fact there was only one white guy, at the next table. We’ll get to him shortly.
Sometimes we see a place so often we can’t recall what it looks like. Sometimes we leave a place so long it seems to have changed dramatically when we return, even if they haven’t. So it is with Chinese Garden. Walking through it with Dad, about ten years after my last visit, and everything is nice – but somehow off. It turns out I’ve been remembering locations and scenery all wrong all this while.
In short, it was nice, but also disorienting. The sort of feeling that makes you want some food that anchors yourself. So it’s a good thing Jurong’s got plenty such places – places like Tonkotsu Kazan.