Cantonese culture is a culture of gourmands. They’ve got this saying that states it all – ‘if its back faces the sky, it is for man to eat’. But it isn’t quite as simple as that; the Cantonese don’t just eat everything, they put in the effort to eat it properly. Even when the ingredients are the height of conventionality – chicken, lettuce, plain white rice – you have to do it right.
And doing it right takes time, and a lot of work, which is why claypot places – never mind those that stick to charcoal, as Yew Chuan does – are now a rarity. Which is not to say it’s doing poorly. Quite the opposite; every table around me, when I visited, is pre-equipped with a bowl, a paddle for mixing the rice and a bit of chilli sauce that looks docile and tastes fierce.
Then it comes, calmly awaiting its dressing. Add lashings of oil, dark soy which sizzles the moment it hits clay; fold its components together with the paddle – Chinese sausages, both red and black with pork liver, chunks of ‘mui heong’ salted fish that flake and scatter their marine reek, and the chicken – glistening and succulent with both its own juice and the rice liquor marinade.
Claypot cooking is attractive for the fire – dancing flames, swirls and spouts of embers whenever each pot is moved to keep the ferocious heat balanced throughout the vessel – but it’s really the water in the rice that gives it interest. In the middle of the pot, the rice is moist, fluffy, a jumble of scents – caramel, charcoal smoke, umami, nuttiness.
Then, as one presses closer to the shiny black inside of the pot, the rice is first brittle and crackly, then properly crisped, then charred. Spoon a little sauce from the blanched vegetables to soften it (order blanched vegetables, they’re good for you), then scrape and twist your paddle like a maniac to dislodge the grains and crumbs. You can try to separate the blackened bits but it won’t work, so just eat it. It will possibly kill you somewhere down the line, yes. But come on. Do you really want to live forever?
Yew Chuan Claypot Rice
505 Beach Road
Golden Mile Food Centre, #01-73
Mon – Wed, Fri: noon – 10pm
Sat – Sun: 4pm – 10pm