Review: Char, Jalan Besar

It is key to emotional health, I think, to understand that most things in life will turn out pretty badly. Things will come too early or too late. People will be maddening ciphers, their motivations inscrutable, their signals garbled, their best intentions catastrophic. We must convince ourselves of the ubiquity of unsuccess, so that when we happen upon a place like Char, every now and then, it feels all the better.

(Note: Now that I have your agreement on this, you will not mind that I was unable to take a picture of the char siew at Char. I know, I know. Such is life!)

I’ve heard about Char a while now, from friends and their friends who spoke in hyperbolic terms of the char siew. But they also told me it was ‘modern’. That, and a look at the location, curbed my enthusiasm. Great, I think. I’ll be eating lovely char siew in some half-arsed imitation warehouse.

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Bites: Riverside Grilled Fish Restaurant 江邊城外

I like wandering malls on those few holidays when most shops are closed – Christmas in London, CNY here. Maybe, as a reaction to the festival, it has the same logic as the people who go overseas during this period – just to get away from the socialising that would be necessary if they were here. It’s also interesting to see which few places are still open.

To find that Riverside Grilled Fish is among the open restaurants, though, is a real surprise. Of all the Asian imports in the Raffles City basement, only the ones from China and Taiwan showed up. But unlike neighbouring Din Tai Fung, Riverside was not rammed to the gates with white people. In fact there was only one white guy, at the next table. We’ll get to him shortly.

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Recipe: Pan-fried Pomfret with Dark Sauce

Taking advantage of the Chinese New Year sales, we finally have a proper flat-bottomed pan, which means we can pan-fry stuff without oil splattering everywhere. Which in turn means the revival of a classic.

Here we use pomfret, but honestly any fish with firm flesh that doesn’t flake when pan-seared should do. Spanish mackerel (batang) and tuna are awesome with this treatment. Sear, then cloak in the night-dark sauce and plenty of aromatics to finish, wafting the aromas of caramel, ginger, garlic… not all good things take a long time.

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Bites: Noodles and Shengjianbao, Shanghai Renjia


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.’

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Review: Soi 19, Ang Mo Kio Ave 5

All young trees look the same; all old trees grow old in their own way. The same holds for housing estates too, the new ones all plagued by the dreary sameness of the mall, of chains upon chains – republics wherein food is had, for example, or boxes wherein toast is contained. Far better are the old neighbourhoods, especially the ones with shop space downstairs where some of my favourite places have sprung, like Tachinomiya in Kovan or Percolate in Bedok.

And Block 151 in Ang Mo Kio has got two such places. Shanghai Renjia I will leave to a later review, mostly because it wasn’t open when I dropped by. Meanwhile Soi 19 is not just open but quiet, almost brooding in the grey light of morning before the lunch crowd descends upon it. All is as it should be – a stack of pig’s trotters neatly arrayed, still soaking in the dark red broth. The options for seasoning your own food Thai-style – pickled chillis, the devil’s own chilli dust, fish sauce – also laid out. Oh, and the lardons. Can’t forget the lardons.

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Recipe: Stir-fried Pacific Clams and Garlic Chives


Yes, yes, I know. I know what you’re going to ask. We’ve just passed Christmas, is it a little bit too early for a CNY-ish recipe? To which I say, pah! Zipdelah! Speth! Of course it isn’t too early.

If there’s one thing that makes Chinese New Year more bearable by far than the Westerners’ holiday season, it is that it doesn’t expect us to eat things we would actively avoid for the rest of the year. Who in their right mind roasts a turkey in March? There’s something better called chicken.

But there is always a space at the table for Pacific clams. Good old Siliqua patula, it turns out, is a particularly broad razor clam (a dagger clam, then?), and its exuberant springiness, the rich brine with a hint of meatiness in it, makes it good for a quick stir fry with just about anything. Just be sure not to fry it past the point of rubberiness.

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Bites: Peanut Candy, Sze Thye Cake Shop


It wasn’t my intention, actually, to buy something that would be useful in the winter solstice offerings to the ancestors. Rather I was running an errand and noticed that the old shop, whose peanut brittle was briefly but lovingly documented by the Straits Times, was along the way.

And in fact, arriving at Sze Thye makes me respect the ST people even more. For the shop, or at least the bit meant for the customers, is… not photogenic. The aesthetic is best described as ‘putting things wherever there’s room’ – neat piles of ingredients, everywhere, in plastic sacks and boxes. Finished goods lie in stacks of sealed plastic bags, on racks, in cardboard boxes, without labels. Mind, some hipster cafes spend wads recreating this look. So at least Sze Thye’s ugliness, unlike theirs, is authentic and effortless.

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10 Course Weekend Brunch – Crystal Jade Prestige, Marina Bay

Crystal Jade Prestige Dim Sum

This was an invited tasting. Deep gratitude to the hosts and fellow tasters.

One of the smaller problems of traditional gender roles, with its demands on men to keep things to themselves, is that there is little consensus about how best to treat a father on ‘his’ day. (I already told you it’s a small problem.) Seen another way, though, this is the best thing for restaurants – a gap they can fill.

So here comes Crystal Jade Prestige to fill this gap with a champagne brunch option. The terms are as follows – for $58 ($48 for DBS/POSB cardholders), you get a choice of ten courses in total from the menu. Another $98 ($88) gets you free flow bubbly. The ten courses include 5 dim sum options (out of a list of 10), an appetiser, a wok-fried dish, a soup, a roast meat and a dessert.

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Movie Review: A Bite of China: Celebrating the Chinese New Year


Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.

‘I am human, and nothing human is alien to me.’

— Terence

Strangely enough, many of the most touching bits in A Bite of China: Celebrating the New Year are only indirectly about food, when the story zooms out into context. It is the 23rd day of the last lunar month, when by custom the deities that watch over Chinese kitchens submit their reports on the virtues of the homeowners; and within the bare wood and brick walls of his house the grandpa is paying respects to the splashes of colour – the image of the deity, the red couplets, a pyramid of golden ‘candy melons’.

Those candy melons – malt sugar stretched and sculpted, rolled with sesame seeds, and with no melons involved – are his work every Chinese New Year; by now we’ve watched him make them, take them to market, smash them for the village kids. But now they serve another purpose, one concerning how the coming year will go. The old man is relying on them to propitiate the Stove God; he lights joss sticks, he prays.

Each year on the twelfth month’s twenty-third day,

We send you, Lord of Stoves, on your way.

We haven’t much to offer you,

But please enjoy these candy melons.

Speak well of us in heaven,

And keep us safe on earth.

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Review: Chinese New Year Menu at Wo Peng Cuisine, Eu Tong Sen Street

Pic 1


How graceful are the peaches; flame-bright are their flowers…

— 詩經 (Classic of Poetry)

This was an invited tasting. Deep gratitude to the host and fellow tasters.

Sometimes a restaurant’s look is determined by the whims of its owners, sometimes by the concepts and plans of the marketing team. But there is a third type, where the sheer weight of a tradition of cuisine soaks into the decor as well. Wo Peng Cuisine is of this last type. The deep space it occupies on the third floor of Furama City Centre is a visit to the sort of Cantonese restaurant still prevalent in Hong Kong but dying out in Singapore – pastel tones, trolleys of all sorts, extensively upholstered and clean and yet a little ramshackle. There’s even a wooden signboard, and couplets for the Chinese New Year.

And honestly, for me this would be enough. The nicest meals of my childhood were mostly eaten in places that looked like this, see (in Singapore, not Hong Kong). So I’m already expecting good things from it, even before they remove the massive, garish flower arrangement from the lazy Susan to make space for food. 

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