This was my original opening to this review, when I was looking just to write about Churro101: Look how much we’ve come to like sugar. Look how hard Singapore’s food scene is leaning on all-out glycemic highs. Clearly sugar makes me grumpy. But then I remembered Tong Ah Eating House, and what went down the last two times I went with friends.
That Italian friend of mine (first appearing in the blog here) came with us to Tong Ah and, being diabetic, decided to order the kopi o kosong. ‘Gack’, he said, on the first sip. Subsequent responses included ‘gurgh’, ‘arrgh’ and an agonised wince (I am nothing if not a careful note taker). Without sugar or other sweetening it turns out to be absolutely undrinkable.
And then another friend dropped in from London, and despite that little prior unpleasantness I brought her there for breakfast anyway, where she gamely took all the carbs they had to throw at her – a proper kopi, sans qualifiers. She sipped the coffee. I held my breath.
‘Oh this is delicious,’ she says. ‘I don’t drink coffee with sugar normally, but this is good.’
So once again my friends give the best insights. No, we’ve not come to like sugar. We’ve always loved it – our parents, and their parents before them, subsisting on rich kaya on toast, glops of condensed milk followed by the good white stuff in the coffee. Ask Tong Ah, they would know.
It is a place of undeniable heritage which used to occupy an iconic, four-storey building at the junction between Keong Saik and Teck Lim; it may have moved slightly down Keong Saik Road, but its name still adorns the building where it used to be. (That spot is now occupied by Potato Head Folk, whose decor looks a lot more exciting than its food; but at least they seem to have preserved the old counter downstairs.)
Enter the shade of its low awning, past the diners touting British cuisine and happy hour drinks, and you slip at least two decades back in time, give or take – whirring ceiling fans, grimy tile floor, fluorescent lights. Even the service staff, despite belonging to the new wave of Chinese immigrants, have fully absorbed the brisk, brusque service attitude that is our dubious hallmark.
But you’re not here to enjoy the ambience; if it’s breakfast time, you’re here for the breakfast set. There is a choice of toast – the normal, the crisp (half-thick slices scraped of carbon with a condensed milk tin lid), French toast or well-risen steamed bread. Half-boiled egg to be cracked and tumbled out of the shell, looking like Gudetama using his white as a comfy duvet, and then quickly seasoned and slurped. Tarry too long and the steamed bread sinks, the crisp bread turns hard, the eggs congeal into a sticky mess. This is breakfast for efficient people.
And yet, for all its efficiency, it’s still comforting. Steamed bread is fluffy and pillowy, crisp toast full of smoke and caramel and crumbs held together with a cool pat of butter. The kaya is homemade, which involves 10 hours over a low flame and constant stirring. It looks unlovely on the plate, grey and clumpy, but is light and intense with pandan and coconut on the palate. Tong Ah is the sort of place that trades on heritage, but in the best way – where it’s not a commodity or unique selling point, but the essence of the operation.
So where has our sugar craving taken us in these days? Towards Spain via Korea, as it turns out. Occupying an airy niche high up in Bugis+ is Churro 101, which has been instrumental in making churros A Thing in South Korea; when you count members of Girls Generation and Miss A among your fans, you’re probably headed in the right commercial direction. They make the claim that their offerings are ‘better than a boyfriend’.
Well, they certainly are simpler than a significant other of any description. The churros here are made from a proprietary dough, devised by the founder Iris Choi. But besides that nothing is secret, and the shop savvily utilises the photogenicity of churros. The kitchen, which takes up nearly half the space, is glass fronted, and you can watch the whole process of your tube of dough being made – squeezed into a pool of golden oil to be wreathed with bubbles, rolled in cinnamon sugar or pumped with a range of fillings.
The chocolate churro is near bursting at the seams with chocolate when I got it, and while the chocolate flavour is a little flattened by sugar, the ganache’s texture is perfect, soothing the heat of the crisp dough, unctuous and oozing. The churro itself is beautifully crisp, with the aroma but not the greasiness of oil. The cinnamon churro, at least double the length of its filled counterpart, places more focus on the texture within; chewy beneath the skin and fragrant with egg and butter. It is also coated so heavily in sugar that crystals plink and scatter on the table every time I so much as touch the thing.
It’s a little excessive for me, but maybe that’s exactly what people look for in boyfriends these days – a cup of sweetness that runneth over. Well, that would explain a lot about my dating misadventures… but I digress. Between these two places – one thoroughly globalised and new and gleaming with Hanguk-chic, the other thoroughly local down to the swivelling, wire-frame fans – I am glad to report that we will be kept sweet for the foreseeable future. Now just to find a hammock to sleep it all off…
201 Victoria Street
Hours: Daily, 10am – 10pm
Tong Ah Eating House
35 Keong Saik Road
Hours: Daily, 6.30am – 10pm (Closed on Wednesdays)