Every time I visit a place, it is a pleasure for me to be able to chat with the boss. But it is probably not good for the boss to have nothing better to do than talk to me. So it is with Shanghai Renjia – they had just opened for the day, and I was the first and only person in for the entire meal. Then again, given the setting, it is perhaps no surprise.
So why this setting, downstairs of a HDB block in Ang Mo Kio? And what about the food? The boss – a retired engineer with salt and pepper hair – looks a little abashed at the second question. ‘Well I’m not an expert,’ he says. ‘It’s nothing special. It’s just my childhood flavours.’
But what childhood flavours they are, issuing from the kitchen (along with the occasional clang, the to-and-fro of instructions and clarifications on orders). The menu isn’t long anyway, all of 17 dishes – homely mementos of one of the world’s busiest metropolises.
Wheat noodles come with a sliced pork chop and mince in two neat piles, to be stirred until the toppings are all mixed in and the pale noodles are coated with shallot oil. The pork chop is a slice of pork loin, battered, fried and then tossed with a dark brown sauce that gets soaked thoroughly into its batter coat. As a result the lean meat, instead of going dry, is pleasantly firm and full of the flavour of tianmianjiang – a broad stroke of umami and sweetness, the hint of wheat and soybeans. Mince, on the other hand, is chicken and taukwa, its plain appearance hiding a lively chilli heat.
Xiaolongbao is by far the most famous of Shanghai’s dumplings, but shengjianbao are just as beautiful. The thin bread skin swells in the frying pan, gaining a golden bottom and locking in all the juices of the marinated pork filling which trickle out on biting – a clear, bronze pool of meat juice, Shaoxing liquor and a little ginger. And because the skin is bread and absorbent, it too has taken on the character of the filling.
The boss seems a little embarrassed when I praise all of this, insisting he’s not an expert. But he then goes on to detail his journey, from the travails of a rented spot along Thomson to finally buying this niche in Ang Mo Kio – a ten year journey you don’t undertake without some deep measure of passion for this. How happy to be on the receiving end of both this passion and this humility.
Shanghai Renjia 上海人家
151 Ang Mo Kio Ave 5 (map)
Contact no.: 6368 6927
Daily, 11am – 3pm, 6.30pm – 10pm