Hokkaido is a fascinating part of Japan if you’re into history. Over the centuries it has been an enemy, a wild frontier, a place of occupation and colonisation. Even now, most place names on the island aren’t Japanese at all, but derived from the native (and sadly endangered) Ainu language. This includes Ishikari and Otaru, the namesake of Otaru Suisan.
Of course Hokkaido is also awesome for the foodie, with its bounty of seafood. But places that boast air-flown seafood from Japan are no longer a rarity here. It was more the promise of Ishikari-nabe, a mighty hit of umami, and the presence of a dining companion, that led us here. And oh boy does Otaru deliver.
This evening was not supposed to go this way. I had a reservation for another restaurant ready, but the companion was having none of it, chanting Yoogane at me until I gave up. So here we were in Bugis, in the queue poring over dishes spanning all the shades of gochujang crimson, sandwiched between excited groups of the beauteous youthful.
People say eating chilli makes your skin better but I think causation runs the other way – it is the taut-skinned and finely chiseled, who would simply glow if they sweat, that don’t mind hunching over jjigae or hotpot. That, or the very hungry, which I was.
Man, this place has been on my list the longest, longest time. Long ago, at a work-related function, I first saw the logo of Rumah Makan Minang – imitating the distinctive, buffalo-horn eaves of the rumah gadang, the traditional communal houses of the Minangkabau people. The crew, working noisily and efficiently, soon had a long table decked with catering trays. A taste of their chicken, and of squid cooked in an ink-black sauce, and I have been looking to come to Minang ever since.
The Minangkabau, one of Asia’s few matrilineal societies, hail from West Sumatra but have spread out over maritime Southeast Asia. They have had an outsize impact on the region. Our first president, Yusof Ishak, was of Minangkabau descent, as was Indonesia’s first vice-president and Malaysia’s first Yang di-Pertuan Agong. Others work their influence more humbly and subtly, one serving of rendang or nasi Padang at a time.
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.
This was an invited tasting. Deep gratitude to the hosts.
When I was told about the invite to Ash & Elm, my first instinct – sight unseen – was, I’m afraid, not very charitable. A restaurant that doesn’t seem to have realised its name would inevitably be acronymised into a hospital department? That’s not particularly encouraging. But then I go, of course, because there’s food, and what I’m taken around to see quickly changes my mind.
Ash & Elm, which serves double duty as the Intercontinental’s guest breakfast area, is a quietly good looking place – wood and bronze tones, mostly, coupled with black. And a semi-buffet lunch helps in that respect. Because we need to face it – buffets can be unsightly, ugly affairs, what with the queues and the half-empty pots and people rummaging around for a fried prawn whose head hasn’t come off during serving.
This was an invited tasting. Thanks to the hosts and fellow bloggers.
I arrive in Sprigs for the tasting about half an hour earlier than the appointed time, and am taken to the appointed table in an empty restaurant. So far, so normal. But then I start listening to the background music, which I don’t recognise until the main theme is reprised. It’s Bésame Mucho – no, actually, it’s jazz variations on the theme of Bésame Mucho. The music swirls out, trails an arc, and then comes right back to the old theme again.
In retrospect, maybe this was a sort of signal they were sending, consciously or not. The stuff we eat at Sprigs, which is pushing out its new menu, is a little like that music – each dish a different tune, but with similar motifs popping up here and there. The new menu itself was created by Shubri, the chef de cuisine (who’s been with them since the start, and with Gunther’s down the street before), with Titus, the co-founder who is in attendance at the tasting.
The other impression I get before anything hits the table is of the PR, which is pretty competent and thorough. They do part of my work for me, which I always welcome. I do like the 1.8m (metres, not millions) paintings of everyday objects. The high, black benches at some of the tables must be great for dates.
We all have them, don’t we – the old place, the regular haunt. In the time when my primary school was a short bus ride from home, Marsiling Market was mine – as well as that of crowds and crowds of Causeway-crossers, seeking to refuel after the checkpoint. In the pre-dawn blue, every minute or so, the traffic light on the main road turns and a swarm Honda Super Cubs blare and keen in unison, all en route to their jobs somewhere.
And well, it’s taken some time, but I’m back here regularly again. It’s amazing how much has remained reasonably similar to what I can recall. Sure, pork in the wet market is now kept in chillers instead of hanging from hooks – which I count a positive, what with the odours – but the bewildering array of fish on mounds of crushed ice is still there, meltwater sloshing underfoot as you wander around all sorts of marine life.
It is breakfast that’s the main thing in the hawker centre. Just about everything is present – youtiao in robust coffee, several nasi lemak places, vegetarian bee hoon – and then Chin Heng Noodle House, right inside the premises. Clean and hygienic as it is, the air in there is thick with aromas and cooking fumes. I’m almost afraid to write about how vintage it is, in case someone notices that it needs some Singapore-style progress and turns it into some generic ‘food haven’ with a bloody multi-storey carpark.
How did we ever use to cope before food hunting apps became a thing? I for one would never have found The Betterfield without guidance, or even suspected that Waterloo Centre would have such a shop. To get to it from Waterloo Street you pass through spare parts shops black with motor oil, heavy with the reek of rubber, and printing shops with tinted glass doors to reach the building’s flank where the bistro sits facing a wall.
It’s almost the textbook definition of an unpromising location for a bistro and cafe. And that is precisely why Betterfield excites me. So well hidden in meatspace, the seven-month-old joint has nonetheless garnered hundreds of recommendations on the app I use. The widespread use of such crowdsourced platforms, where intrepid people can delve into nooks and crannies for the rest to follow, will be – maybe already is – the key to viability in a food scene still so heavily dependent on location. And when it turns up something like the Betterfield, all the, well, better.
This was my original opening to this review, when I was looking just to write about Churro101: Look how much we’ve come to like sugar. Look how hard Singapore’s food scene is leaning on all-out glycemic highs. Clearly sugar makes me grumpy. But then I remembered Tong Ah Eating House, and what went down the last two times I went with friends.
That Italian friend of mine (first appearing in the blog here) came with us to Tong Ah and, being diabetic, decided to order the kopi o kosong. ‘Gack’, he said, on the first sip. Subsequent responses included ‘gurgh’, ‘arrgh’ and an agonised wince (I am nothing if not a careful note taker). Without sugar or other sweetening it turns out to be absolutely undrinkable.
And then another friend dropped in from London, and despite that little prior unpleasantness I brought her there for breakfast anyway, where she gamely took all the carbs they had to throw at her – a proper kopi, sans qualifiers. She sipped the coffee. I held my breath.
The pizza is, by nature, an amorphous beast – easily imported, easily adapted. In the days when the Mediterranean diet was a lot more restricted, the Greeks and Romans were putting herbs, onions and olive oil on their flatbreads. As the tomato arrived and became accepted by the poor in Italy (the rich were more paranoid; the tomato was said to be poisonous), so pizza as we recognise it appeared. Even nationalism played a part; the margherita, it is said, was invented in Naples because its ingredients (tomato, mozzarella, basil) evoked the Italian tricolore.
Well, at least that’s how it went down in its land of origin. For Singapore, the movement towards a pizza more like its Italian original, instead of products from Pizza Hut et al., has been a gradual process; I don’t tend to have them, because they mostly appear in Italian restaurants as part of a menu, and rarely the best part. Bottura, for instance, has its piadina (a north-central variation on the more familiar Neapolitan dish), but it also has arancini and a mean polenta, so why would I order that?
The real niche is a place where pizza is the main thing, but where it’s also made properly – for one, where the pizza’s journey to the table does not include a spell in a fridge. And now there are two recent entrants to that niche, Alt Pizza and The Pizza Collective, representing the burgeoning trend towards pizza as it is made, instead of as it was made and refrigerated.