By now it is conventional wisdom that the north of Singapore, that benighted quarter, is a food wasteland. There’s nothing worthwhile here for the foodie – nothing trendy, nothing that rushes up Peak Hipster with all the cool cafes. But there is one saving grace at Sembawang, goes the same conventional wisdom. We may not have much in the way of black sesame waffles or truffle fries, but we have bee hoon in a white gravy, and that is enough. The north has no good food? Go to Sembawang and eat the white bee hoon, comes the rejoinder.
Now, as a northerner, I must politely disagree. That the north is a food wasteland is simply untrue, but not for the reason stated. If you ask me, the white bee hoon is mediocre – it’s not the best Sembawang has to offer. It’s not even the best, in my opinion, that the neighbourhood can muster. No, to get the best, you need to cross the road and go to Chye Lye Curry Fish Head. Well, it’s what I’d do anyway. It’s what I’ve done since childhood and I see no need to change.
So now you know, at least, that I am about to be a bit biased in this review. The low-rise cluster which surrounds Sembawang Shopping Centre is a bit of old-school space in the increasingly HDB’ed north, that heavily colonised by food places in recent years. but Chye Lye is an old presence. There’s a newspaper clipping declaring it an established classic, and it was written in 2000. You get the idea. Its biggest advantage, really, is the open air space – al fresco dining, but with local characteristics.
The menu is your usual zi char fare, and most of the stuff is at least reasonably good. Take the stir-fried mixed veg with seafood, for instance – nothing special has gone into it, but all the basics are there, each having taken a well-timed turn in the wok. The vegetables still have crunch, the seafood pops and bounces, and everything is washed in a smooth, savoury sauce.
But there are two exceptions to the normalcy, and the first is named on the signboard. At Chye Lye, the curry fish head comes in a plastic tub, and steers a careful middle course between acidity and creaminess. The gravy is the colour of turmeric, but there is a measured, tangy kick that could be tamarind, but might also just be tomatoes. The red snapper head is added in late, so it’s tender from poaching but still chunky and substantial. And it is substantial, even if you discount the plenty of vegetables and tau pok that soak up yet more gravy. Three red Yusofs gets you a full head with plenty of ‘neck’, with change.
The other dish that’s less announced, but is known by most regulars, is the roast chicken, which comes with a lime to dress it with and a patient but vigorous sambal chili. The skin and meat have gone their separate ways in texture, one bronzed and crackling and the other succulent, with strong hits of salt and five spice scattered throughout, and really comes to life with a little lime juice.
So Chye Lye is my go-to answer for the question of whether there is good food to be found up north. Sure, white bee hoon is going on its empire building spree; I guess if you make the queues long enough there will eventually be a wealthy investor stuck in them at some point. But across Jalan Legundi the service is efficient, the staff quick moving and friendly.
And this may be nostalgia talking, but from childhood on I’ve not really felt their standards declining; it’s always been consistently good. Chye Lye are not at the forefront of any wave; rather their forte is in holding their own, building their own turmeric scented comfort zone. I’m all for it, and as a northerner I’ll say this is my curry fish head. There are many that claim they are better. And there are even some, I might concede, which actually are. But this one is mine.
Chye Lye Curry Fish Head
1 Jalan Legundi (map)
Tues – Sun, 11am – 10.30pm
Closed on Mondays