As Confucius said, it is a joy to have friends visit from afar. But it can be a stressful thing too, especially if they come at this time of year. As they’re based in London, there’s no question of taking them to some hipster hole; anyway I don’t inflict hipster holes on my friends.
Fortunately, we still have Little India, crowded and noisy and wonderful, and bearing Komala Vilas just a short distance from the chaos of the main road. The place has given no attention to its decor beyond the bare minimum, to provide its customers with somewhere to sit. Instead its most potent advertisement is the scent that wafts from the kitchen and out the entrance.
Roti John is one of those strange foods for me, in a category with lor mee, shengjianbao and shakshouka. They are all things I love, but somehow never seek out; I can function for years without particularly craving them, but if I happen to be somewhere and they happen to be available, I know what I’m ordering. And at Al Ameen Eating Corner, where the menu can cause serious injury if dropped on your head, they have roti john.
The reason I was at Al Ameen has nothing to do with the food, even. Occupying a large space in an industrial park in Marsiling, it just happened to have good seats to the New Year fireworks show, especially in the ‘alfresco’ section (the extra tables that extend to the grass patch outside). But they do have roti john. 9 different ways, in fact.
This was an invited tasting. Deep gratitude to the hosts and fellow tasters.
It tends to be a good sign when this friend of mine is intrigued, and he most certainly is when he has a bit of the pineapple pork curry at CATO. ‘I’ve never tasted a curry like this before,’ he says. ‘It tastes of salted fish.’ And so it does. More importantly, it actually enhances the ensemble.
In CATO, facing Sri Mariamman temple on the edge of Chinatown, the sense I get from this dish and several others is of ambition. They want every dish to make like that pineapple curry, make people’s eyes go wide. Inevitably, they do not completely succeed. But there is enough to make for several pleasant surprises.
I’ve had some pretty good experiences with Street Feast, the people who run Hawker House. It was through them, for instance, that I found my favourite Chinese breakfast dish. Jianbing guozi – wonton skin and hoisin sauce, wrapped in a scallion omelette, inside a mung bean crepe – is apparently a morning staple in Tianjin, but I first tried it at Dalston in an abandoned, open-air warehouse turned weekend food market.
You can imagine my excitement, then, when I am told that they are in Canada Water for a second year, taking over a warehouse two nights every week – just ten minutes from where we are going. Of course we’re going. I decide not to have lunch that day. I go to the cash machine to get a few crisp ten pound notes, expecting to use most of them.
Over Chinese New Year something a little weird came over me. It’s almost as if I’ve temporarily become sick of the whole new-chasing thing and am reverting to the pre-food-writing me. For the pre-food-writing me is a lazy beast, and a lazy beast is a predictable one. I like eating, but I don’t like taking risks. So I had one go-to place for curry fish head, one for steak, and so on.
But even then, Al-Azhar Eating Restaurant (is there any other kind of restaurant?) was never my go to for anything in particular. Rather, it was my friend going through a bad patch that led us here, based on nothing more than vague nostalgia for the time when the world was young, the MRT had like three lines, and we were still wearing khaki shorts at 16 due to ridiculous elite school historical reasons. Perhaps more relevantly, it was closing on 9pm on a Friday and the city centre was a writhing mass of hungry, sozzle-seeking humanity. So we scarpered into the wilds of Bukit Timah.
Going into IndLine, my first emotion was a tremble of apprehension that was not about the place itself – or at least not directly. Rather, the way the place looks is so similar to another place down Keong Saik Road, which I like, that for a moment I thought the other place was no more. From the placement of the counter, to the decor with flashes of colour on bare concrete, to the raised rear portion. It could be a quirk of the whole stretch – or it could be I am standing where Muchachos once was.
It turns out it’s probably the quirk thing. But it still says something about how Keong Saik is falling into hipsterish homogeneity even as it becomes a food strip to be reckoned with. Indline’s looks definitely stand out among Indian restaurants – neither utilitarian and ascetic, nor arrayed with upholstery and thick-padded banquettes throughout. (Not that there’s anything wrong with either.) It is as modern as its setting demands. But is it Indian?