Singapore’s urban jungle is so dense, its buildings so high and its people packed so tightly, that sometimes you miss things just a short walk from you. For a long time I’ve been whining (inwardly) about the lack of rosti in Singapore. It’s shredded potatoes for heaven’s sake. Why do I have to go to Marche and pay enormous amounts for that?
Or at least that’s my excuse for this glaring oversight – not only did I not know about Ivan’s Carbina, mere minutes away from my place; I didn’t even know there was a coffee shop there at all. It was only when I saw a video on Facebook that I knew. Rosti was there all the time; indeed, it’s been there for years.
As far as I can remember, salted duck has never been common in Singapore. In fact, I can remember exactly one place which sold it, which was at the old Sembawang Hill Food Centre, and I always had that every time I dropped by (which was not frequent).
As such, the news of a new salted duck place in Toa Payoh is intriguing, and I’m thankful I went to look for Benson Salted Duck – a reason to revisit Singapore’s oldest HDB estate, where my mother used to live. She has her list of places round here which we still go to every time we drop by. And I suspect we will be adding to that list now.
The first time I walked past Ah Seng Bak Kut Teh, I was on my way somewhere else and didn’t really notice it. (Also, I was still half full from porridge.) But after several circles round the few blocks, trying to find a Thai place that Google Maps insists is right here, I give up, and en route to giving up I happen upon the place again. Oh, what the hell.
Only after I’ve ordered and sat down do I notice the decor. The counter is done like the façade of an old building in Chinatown or Geylang, complete with faux windows. There are old school advertisements framed on the walls. Flying Spaghetti Monster help us – the hipster virus has even got to the BKT joints now. But is it just a surface infection, a trendy skin rash, or has it gotten all the way in?
New food trends hit Singapore every so often, with lots of fire and smoke and everything. But more interesting, to me, is the process after – the quiet percolation of trendy foods throughout the market, the process of food stalls catching up to the restaurants. The first wave of imitations are often off the mark. But then comes another iteration, and another – hungry mouths driving ambitious hands.
Many cuisines don’t ever make it to this stage; it’s the ones that do that are truly established. Japanese is one of them. And where Japanese katsudon is concerned, Washoku Goen feels like a culmination of that process – food court Japanese that is properly honed, not least because it is Japanese.
What are the odds? First venture into the northeast – that wild, desolate land of half a million people – in 2017, and after wandering about in HDB estates as I remembered from my childhood, I strike gold. Gloopy, ivory-coloured gold.
(Actually, the odds were well in my favour. It’s called internet research and it often works.)
Sin Heng Kee reminds me of another northeastern spot I enjoy, namely Lau Wang Claypot Delights. The two share similar origin stories – claypotting and porridging their way from a single stall to taking over a whole coffeeshop niche. Their menus even overlap slightly, with Sin Heng Kee having a few claypot items. So clearly the moral is – to be successful in Singapore’s food scene, sell stuff in claypots. Or be a hipster cafe. Better still, a hipster claypot-serving cafe. Is that not yet a thing? Get on it, people.
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.
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.
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.
Long before you could eat pan-Asian cuisine on a roof by Marina Bay or have a pint under a red velvet night at Orchard – long before roof gardens became a thing – there has been Beauty World Centre. It’s never been a pretty building, even in its own time; now, against the swank and gleam of the new Orchard malls, it looks and feels like a frumpy old spinster. But she’s the sort of frumpy old spinster that’s got plenty of wealth stashed away – in this case, in the form of the al fresco food centre on its top floor.
I’ve never lived near the area, but an aunt used to work nearby, and so Hong Wen Mutton Soup and Jin Li Satay Bee Hoon surfaced every now and then on the dinner table when I was a kid. And now, after years of being a linear construction site with all the restaurants hidden behind hoardings, the MRT is finally here, disgorging passengers right before Beauty World. It seemed as good a time as any to go take a look at what’s been going on upstairs.
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.