Bites: Ishikari-nabe, Otaru Suisan


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.

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Review: Nan Hwa Fishboat, Owen Road

Nan Hwa Fishboat Owen Road.jpg

This was an invited tasting. Much gratitude to the hosts and fellow bloggers.

I don’t know if what our host told us is meant for publication, so there won’t be any details. But suffice to say the history of Nan Hwa Fishboat really sounds like the sort of thing from which a good screenwriter could spin quite the TV series. There are changes of heart and changes of allegiance; there are family intrigues most intriguing; there are admirable strangers and fortuitous encounters that lead to redemption. There’s even a traditional, time-honoured formula, because there is no good Chinese soap opera without a traditional, time-honoured formula.

Were a wordsmith really to script this series, I suspect the last episode will be a bit like the tasting we had. This is not a bad thing – after all, soap operas tend to end hopefully, and Nan Hwa certainly is in the ascendant currently. I can see the scene in my mind’s eye – the theme song playing over a bunch of waiting foodies, with the wall in the background stating that this brand is nearly nine decades old, and is now spreading and ready to go international, going to Indonesia and Vietnam among other places.

And then at the climax they bring out the old metal steamboat of the main characters’ childhood days, and everyone smiles because the good old days are going to become the good new days. Roll credits. (Why yes, I am available for freelance writing work! You can contact me here.) 

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Review: Hua Ting Steamboat, Orchard Hotel

Hua Ting Steamboat Orchard Hotel Spread

This is an invited tasting. Deep gratitude to the hosts.

During my second year in London, we – a couple and I, sharing a ground-floor flat in Brockley – decided to throw a Chinese New Year reunion dinner the time-honoured way, with steamboat. Too lazy to find a shop that sells one of those portable cookers, we ended up using two rice cookers – one with spicy soup, chicken in the other, set permanently on ‘cook’. It was enough, with several refills, to feed 12 or 15 people. More importantly, it’s the kind of meal you remember fondly 6 years later.

My point is that steamboat’s bare essentials really are bare, which makes it both profoundly easy to run a steamboat joint, and very difficult to run a good one. Which part of the meal are you supposed to improve? This is probably why some go for gimmicks; manicures while you are queueing comes to mind.

Hua Ting Steamboat in Claymore Connect, however, takes another route, and they make it clear from the start; the invitation to the tasting asked if I would prefer winter melon and conpoy, tomato and century egg, or maybe shark cartilage as the soup base. Even before I’ve seen the place I’m already favourably disposed.

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Review: Torikin, Bukit Timah Road

Torikin Bukit Timah Mizutaki Spread

This is an invited tasting. Much gratitude to the hosts and fellow tasters.

How can you tell when a cuisine, imported from somewhere, has truly seeped into the local culture? I somehow don’t think it’s just a matter of commonness. For example, there is no lack of Korean joints in Singapore now, but they revolve around a few general tropes – there’s fried chicken, gui or grill, and the classic dishes – bibimbap, jjigae, samgyetang. It’s a promising start, but we have yet to look into the differences between the different regions of Korea.

Japanese food, on the other hand, is a lot more established. And this is why Torikin is intriguing to me; it is another piece in the movement of Singapore’s Japanese food away from the general and into the specific. Torikin does have the usual offerings on its menu, but its unique sell is in the food of Hakata, in Fukuoka, and most of all its hotpots – the mizutaki chicken pot, and the motsunabe, made with beef offal. 

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