This was an invited tasting. Much gratitude to the hosts and fellow bloggers.
I don’t know if what our host told us is meant for publication, so there won’t be any details. But suffice to say the history of Nan Hwa Fishboat really sounds like the sort of thing from which a good screenwriter could spin quite the TV series. There are changes of heart and changes of allegiance; there are family intrigues most intriguing; there are admirable strangers and fortuitous encounters that lead to redemption. There’s even a traditional, time-honoured formula, because there is no good Chinese soap opera without a traditional, time-honoured formula.
Were a wordsmith really to script this series, I suspect the last episode will be a bit like the tasting we had. This is not a bad thing – after all, soap operas tend to end hopefully, and Nan Hwa certainly is in the ascendant currently. I can see the scene in my mind’s eye – the theme song playing over a bunch of waiting foodies, with the wall in the background stating that this brand is nearly nine decades old, and is now spreading and ready to go international, going to Indonesia and Vietnam among other places.
And then at the climax they bring out the old metal steamboat of the main characters’ childhood days, and everyone smiles because the good old days are going to become the good new days. Roll credits. (Why yes, I am available for freelance writing work! You can contact me here.)
The Owen Road space that Nan Hwa has taken over is very spacious, including a large outdoor area as well, and they’ve done a good simple job with it – tiles, bright lighting, tanks of live fish and seafood. It’s a family and friend place; more to the point, it is meant to cleave to a tradition, so Nan Hwa’s decor is consistent with everything, including the first and foremost dish.
I must admit that, unlike the other guests at the tasting, I have never been to the original store, and therefore I don’t have a basis for comparison. For the Owen Road joint differs from the North Bridge original in the choice of core ingredient, which as a friend asserts does make a difference. Pomfret is, for economic as much as cultural reasons, the favourite at the old joint; here it is also available, but the focus seems to be on more upmarket groupers, of which three types are available – the red, the potato cod, and the dragon grouper. We get the dragon grouper fishboat, with large, firm chunks of the noble fish deep fried and sunk into the broth.
The appearance of the pot has got plenty of visual impact as well. I mean it when I mention childhood days; the steamboats are of the old school with the soup heated by a central tower of charcoal that wafts flame and embers on arrival. Without the milk which is often used on fish soups elsewhere, it is pale but translucent. Instead it is the mild sweetness of fish and vegetables that comes through – and then, below that, the clean and crystallised umami of dried sole fish which is used with such generosity it forms a brown, intensely flavoured sludge at the bottom of the pot.
Besides the trademark fishboat, there is also an array of zi char dishes, some of which are fully traditional like the sanlao hefen. The pallor and moistness of the dish – grouper slices, beansprouts and hor fun without any colouring – belies the wok hei it contains, spreading out of the chewy rice noodles on contact.
Champagne pork ribs, on the other hand, feels like a bit of a misnomer. It’s not that the ribs are poor in any way, the slices attractively gleaming and moist without too much fat to distract. But the almond flakes used as mere garnish end up snatching the show, riding roughshod over the glaze. They are really almond pork ribs, not that it’s a bad thing – the nutty flavour pairs very nicely with pork.
Pumpkin prawns come out wearing jackets that look like that tze char stalwart, salted egg yolk sauce. And in a way it proves just how pointless salted egg yolk sauce actually is. For even after repeated tasting we remain convinced there is egg yolk in the golden gloop, while the kitchen denies it. The point is that ‘salted egg yolk’ sauce really derives its flavour from the interplay of something gooey and salty with crisped curry leaves and a smattering of chili padi, and pumpkin with a little seasoning will do just as nicely, and with a lot less cholesterol. Its characteristic sweetness is a little different, the texture a little more pulp and less goo. But if you like crunchy globes of prawns, which I do, this is a well dressed dish of said crunchy globes.
Another dish which seemed well received mostly by me was the lala clams, little slips and crunches, in a rice wine broth heavy with Chinese herbs like danggui, goji berries and black tree fungus. While a heady aroma leaps out from the soup, it is actually quite mild to drink, but it is firmly in the category of rainy day dishes.
And yet, while the zi char is of respectable quality, there is still no doubt about the star of the meal, which is that fishboat. Even amid the variety of dishes being brought on the table, it is that fishboat broth to which I return once and again for refills, digging around unglamorously in the bottom of the pot for the sludge of sole and grouper bits. Perhaps if I had tried the original original, I too might be inclined towards it. But right now, I’m more than willing to consider the use of grouper as a nice twist on that traditional formula, around which the zi char dishes know their place. From a food scene relying so heavily on imports these days, it is especially gratifying to see that we are exporting food of this quality too.
Nan Hwa Fishboat
93 Owen Road (map)
Hours: Daily, 11.30am – 2.30pm, 5pm – 10pm