Note: We lost track of Zhen Da Ji for a while after they closed, but now we’ve found it again! The address has been updated below.
And when friends have arrived from afar, is that not a cause for joy?
— Confucius (551 – 479 BCE)
I read in some article, not too long ago, that says Singapore is a place of convenient food. Totally agree – practically every two streets here there’s a cluster of food stalls, while the malls are jammed with restaurants. But he then says that Singaporeans expect him not to go a long distance to find a place that’s good, and I start wondering which Singaporeans exactly he’s been talking to. Yes, the Singapore I know is full of convenient, nearby meals, but it is also the land of the high noon lunch trek, the weekend dinner pilgrimage. Food is fuel; good food is what you use the fuel to find.
But if I’m making a long journey by local standards – a bus from home to Bedok, then another into the low-rise depths of Telok Kurau – it’s dwarfed by what my best friends have done to meet me there. They’ve flown in from London, see, sixteen hours and a stopover at Qatar, and I’m waiting to see them for the first time in a year, alone at a large round table.
It’s not the only thing they’ve come here for, but one of the pals really sets the tone at the start, even before the food is served, when he tells me: ‘I’ve been waiting to come here since last year’. That’s setting a high bar – even more so when you consider he is Italian.
Chicken rice, fishball noodles and mee rebus are all very well, but I’ve always considered zi char to be the real mainstay of our cuisine. Formed around a core of cooking techniques and ideas mainly from Cantonese and southern Chinese cuisine, it is deeply traditional, yet endlessly adaptive to Singapore’s ingredients and palate. Chilli crab is zi char’s most famous product, but what Zhen Da Ji offers is a little more down to earth, though no less rooted in this culinary tradition.
Fish head is considered a premium ingredient in Chinese cooking for good reason – it may look grotesque to the uninitiated, but it is a whole array of different meats in a single convenient package. Here the package (red snapper) is steamed, then simmered in a claypot of turmeric-coloured curry, its vast flavours blended and restrained by coconut milk. The curry’s flavour soaks into the fish at different rates; the medallion of cheek flesh is thoroughly suffused, while the firmer white flesh of the ‘neck’ retains more of the fish’s normal sweetness. Tomatoes provide a subtly tangy counterpoint to the curry’s richness, keeping the gravy on the right side of overwhelming.
In 80% of Singapore’s zi char restaurants, that curry fish head alone would make a fine signature dish, but Zhen Da Ji also has its Thai Style Tofu. The ‘Thai Sauce’ is based around sweet chilli sauce with some added lime, coriander and a crunchy, refreshing salad; but the wedges of fish tofu, dipped in egg batter before deep-frying, are a revelation – the puffy, curling tendrils of egg crisp and light as air, before handing over to the springy, mildly savoury white insides.
The Thai sauce must work brilliantly for Zhen Da Ji, because we encounter it again – this time with a battered chicken cutlet, golden and heavily perfumed with turmeric. Clearly, having come up with one light and punchy companion for fried dishes to cut the greasiness, the kitchen sees no need to devise another. And you know what? They’re right not to trouble themselves. We polish it all off.
Honestly, I could go on and on, because with seven people there was enough stomach space to order plenty of dishes and enjoy the variety. They have a salted egg yolk dish with cubes of pork loin evenly coated with the smooth emulsion, the tiniest jabs of curry leaves lifting an otherwise greasy dish; there is also the classic of stir-fried long beans, except they’ve substituted chye poh for minced meat – the preserved radish fried to a dry, gleaming crunch, their already heady aroma boosted with plenty of minced garlic. Another classic of braised tofu is a lot more conservative, cleaving to tradition – and doing it so very well, its sauce-soaked skin stretchy and supple, the braising sauce itself full of umami from soy and pork mince.
But all that is just part of the magic, as we sit around the table, my friends and the Singaporean pal’s family, spooning curry sauce onto the fluffy white rice. The magic is also about eating alfresco in the tropical evening, the heat more like a warm embrace than a red hot vice. The magic is the communal logic of zi char, of passing plates around and providing a running commentary as the dishes come; it is the familiarity that comes with being a regular, as the friend’s mother critiques the long beans even while we’re savouring them: it’s too hard, they’re probably in a rush, there’s still a little of the plant smell in there. (There is, for the record; I just don’t think it’s a negative.)
But most of all, I think, is the magic of being with friends – friends of ancient allegiance, of tipsy sleepovers and wintry Vietnamese and shared exam study sessions, of a long-awaited reunion after a year of Whatsapp and sharing silly videos and photos. On reflection, perhaps my Italian friend meant by ‘this’ not just the food, but all of this – of easy banter with familiar people, the inside jokes and unspoken rapport.
I know that is what I’ve been looking forward to since I heard the buddies were coming over. Having said all that, though, the place of the reunion is still an important thing, and Zhen Da Ji is as fine a place for a group dinner as they come. I am told by my friend’s dad that they will be moving out in October, a casualty of the churn of development; well, that just means I should go again soon, and then quickly figure out where they’ve gone next…
Hong Kong Street Zhen Da Ji
133 Changi Road
Hours: Daily, 5pm – 11pm