Long before you could eat pan-Asian cuisine on a roof by Marina Bay or have a pint under a red velvet night at Orchard – long before roof gardens became a thing – there has been Beauty World Centre. It’s never been a pretty building, even in its own time; now, against the swank and gleam of the new Orchard malls, it looks and feels like a frumpy old spinster. But she’s the sort of frumpy old spinster that’s got plenty of wealth stashed away – in this case, in the form of the al fresco food centre on its top floor.
I’ve never lived near the area, but an aunt used to work nearby, and so Hong Wen Mutton Soup and Jin Li Satay Bee Hoon surfaced every now and then on the dinner table when I was a kid. And now, after years of being a linear construction site with all the restaurants hidden behind hoardings, the MRT is finally here, disgorging passengers right before Beauty World. It seemed as good a time as any to go take a look at what’s been going on upstairs.
And there has been a lot of both change and stasis. On one hand, the influence of the Korean community in Bukit Timah continues to make its presence felt, with former shops having been turned into Korean restaurants or street food joints. Even among the hawker stalls there are sprouts of more recent trends; I was actually going to include one of them here, but forgot to check the opening times and ran into closed shutters. My own idiocy, of course – or maybe, subliminally, my desire to find and dig into the childhood favourites. For they are still there, including most of all the mutton soup.
Mutton is not really used in Chinese cuisine; in Singapore I would say the Indian cuisine continues to dominate this meat, with a head on approach to its strong, ornery flavour. At Hong Wen, though, the style is fully Chinese, with medicinal herbs, a glug of rice liquor as well as plenty of freshly shredded ginger to tame the mutton. The resulting broth has a distinctly warm, woody sweetness to pair with meat – mostly from the ribs – which is moist but retains plenty of bite.
The other thing that defines the soup, though, is the chilli dip. For all I know, it’s simply fresh chillies pounded with white vinegar, but it works, coating the mutton in a moderate heat with a sharp jab of acidity.
There is another place along Upper Bukit Timah that’s more renowned for its satay bee hoon, but their opening times are so complex I decided not to bother in the end. In any case, Jin Li is the one I used to have, and the shop looks as if the last thirty years were merely a rumoured occurrence that nobody is really sure has happened. And anyway there have been no major advances in the state of satay bee hoon making – the bee hoon still needs blanching, as do cockles, supple cured cuttlefish, thin slices of pork and lanky, stringy kangkong.
The major variable – and where Jin Li is special – is the satay gravy that gets drenched on everything else. Besides the innately complex flavour, turmeric and sugar and the depth and crunch of roasted peanuts, there is now a substantial hit of umami coming from hebi, Chinese dried shrimp. With the neutrality of blanched beehoon as a backdrop, it actually works quite well.
So I’ve come all the way to Bukit Timah to look at old things instead of chasing the waves again. And it has to be said – on weekends, especially now with the MRT, the place is rammed, perhaps even more than it used to be. Couple that with the natural heat, and the artificial heat of food being fried and cooked over twenty stalls, and al fresco can get rather uncomfortable.
Yet to sit at the slightly wonky stools, with Bukit Timah Hill rising to one side, is – for me anyway – to enjoy a certain sort of attachment. Goodness knows Singapore isn’t much for attachments, at least compared to the potential return on investment from another 36 storey office tower/underground shopping mall. But here is the old spinster aunt, seemingly going ‘not yet, not on my watch’, with her hand on my shoulder and two increasingly uncommon hawker dishes before me. It is a precious sort of assurance, that.
Hong Wen Mutton Soup
144 Upper Bukit Timah Road
Beauty World Plaza #04-20 (map)
Tues – Sun, 11.30am – 8pm
Closed on Mondays
Jin Li Satay Beehoon
144 Upper Bukit Timah Road
Beauty World Plaza #04-40 (map)
Thurs – Tues, 11am – 8pm
Closed on Wednesdays