What I’ve got in simmering away front of me, sitting in Masizzim, is one culture’s answer to an age old culinary problem – the issue of pairing something with chilli. It is a beef stew, kept bubbling by a flame below, spreading a meaty, rounded scent every which way. See, capsaicin is a beautiful, wonderful thing, but by itself it is often far too vicious for a dish. It’s not something that can be used alone. The native Mexicans used the equally formidable chocolate as its foil, but in Europe, while chocolate found its own mates (sugar and milk), they seem to have simply given up on chilli – more’s the pity.
But not in Asia. Just about every culinary culture in Asia, introduced to chilli in the 17th or 18th century, has found its preferred match to the spicy kick. It’s Sichuan peppercorns, citrusy and buzzing; it’s the fermented, marine odours of belachan and fish sauce. Korea’s solution is simple too – the savour of fermented soybeans, sweetness from honey or fruit juices. It is an approach that focuses on the nature of chilli as a fruit, rather than just a hot poker for the mouth. Masizzim gets it, the chilli assertive but not aggressive.
One of many established chains in Korea that have been brought into Singapore (the folks behind the Singapore venture are also the people behind Chir Chir, just next door), Masizzim occupies its niche in the basement of 313 Somerset sleekly and with gusto. I’m not sure what the baskets of granite framing the doorway signify, but it leads to a space with the feel of an upmarket fast food joint, bare concrete and grey being the main colours.
The menu is relatively short, centred on a few main tropes of Korean cooking. There’s the Rice Mixed with Stuff. There’s the Pancake with Stuff. And then there’s the headline item, Meat Stew – beef, pork or chicken, in a soup based either on soy sauce or on that alluring sweet-chilli mix, with four different levels of chilli to choose from. There are just three items of banchan for your edification, including slices of translucently thin radish, and petals of onions in a soy-vinegar marinade to kick the palate into gear.
After a few minutes the waitress comes to put a lump of solid fuel on the stand, awaiting the grand arrival of the beef itself, in a cast iron bowl and kept simmering by the flames. And what a thing of beauty it is. In Masizzim, the meats are marinated overnight, then pressure-cooked and then further simmered for six hours, before coming with tteokbokki and either udon or glass noodles, all soaking in an auburn broth.
The process definitely shows. Bones clatter out of the meat cleanly, yet the hunks of meat, each threaded with sinews, have preserved their textures remarkably. Tendons squeak and bounce, meat flakes and melts, everything seeping with juices. The stew does have that pleasant sweetness as well as the dry, distinctive smell of chilli skins, presumably from gochugaru (Korean dried chilli flakes); it’s a flavour more expansive than deep. Maybe it’s because the spice is relatively mild that the fruitiness shines through, though even then there is a pretty hard, delayed kick. Little crunches are provided by the garnish of leeks and thinly sliced king mushrooms.
In a twist on bibimbap, the bowl of rice comes with gloves; you don them and mix the bowl by hand, then mould the result into little rice balls. (Or big rice balls. It’s up to you.) The grains are a mix of white rice, Korean black rice – a lovely shade of lavender – and barley. But the dominant flavours here are of gim, the flakes and crumbs of laver better known to us as nori; their saltiness is balanced nicely by the meaty tang of the canned tuna and also of kimchi. It’s an appealing mix of crunch and tooth-sticking chewiness. At the end of everything is a sustained note of sesame oil and more of that warm dried chilli aroma poking around.
What Masizzim serves is, in a sense, nothing out of the ordinary. There’s sesame oil, there’s soy sauce, there’s chilli and seaweed and sugar – it is of a piece with the rest of the Korean cuisine wave that is battering our shores. They are happy to stick to the script and focus on doing the same thing well.
And the products justify them, especially those hunks of beef and their varied tenderness, the marine umami of the rice. Brisk service and a clean-shaven vibe also helps focus attention on the food, the experience of mashing the ingredients and warm rice together. It’s not the sort of place for ‘award-winning’ food. It is, however, the sort of place you actually think about visiting when you are hungry – not hungry for anything special, but just hungry.
313 Orchard Road
313 Somerset, #B3-02
Sun – Thurs, 11am – 10pm
Fri – Sat, 11am – 11pm