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?
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.
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.
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.
So recently the issue of Singapore’s hawker culture, and its continued survival, has been peeking out again. There isn’t the space here to talk about the flurry of proposals and suggestions for this, and I guess I ought to be glad that we are interested in at least one part of our cultural patrimony.
I don’t know what the best solution to this problem is myself, but perhaps it might involve what some places are doing now – namely, the upmarketing (upmarketising?) of hawker dishes. It has a certain logic – change the setting, include an ingredient list and a name that can pass for witty, and it turns out people will pay prices for something they’d scream about otherwise. People such as me, for instance, forking over nearly two Red Yusofs for the honour of eating something resembling bak chor mee at :pluck. And I was prepared to consider it worth the price too. I was.
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.
In concrete jungles, as in the real thing, height and mass do not correlate with interest or diversity. Against the blankly glass-faced monoliths of the business district, the meadow of old shophouses round Duxton are a treasure; even before I get to Kite I’m caught by the series of Chinese inscriptions above the entrances of the shophouses beside it. It turns out they are quotes from Wang Yucheng, a Song Dynasty writer, and Wang Xizhi, the great Jin Dynasty calligrapher.
Now, in a city with a dense transport web and good internet, I think location has become a little less important for restaurants (viz. Betterfield). But Kite has definitely won the lottery with its spot, and to its credit it has done well with its prize, treading the well-worn path of current restaurant design – concrete bar counter, mostly unadorned white walls, keeping some of the Peranakan tiles on the floor. By leaning into the minimalism they manage not to look too pretentious. This turns out not to be the philosophy with the food, though; it feels as if they’ve kept the place austere so you have your eyes all on the food. Well, it works beautifully, as does the food itself.