Sometimes we see a place so often we can’t recall what it looks like. Sometimes we leave a place so long it seems to have changed dramatically when we return, even if they haven’t. So it is with Chinese Garden. Walking through it with Dad, about ten years after my last visit, and everything is nice – but somehow off. It turns out I’ve been remembering locations and scenery all wrong all this while.
In short, it was nice, but also disorienting. The sort of feeling that makes you want some food that anchors yourself. So it’s a good thing Jurong’s got plenty such places – places like Tonkotsu Kazan.
My friend D is a living example of cosmopolitanism – he comes from Italy, studied in Ireland and the UK, lived for a year in Japan, works across Europe, is in love with a Singaporean. More to Babette’s point, he knows and loves eating. He can hold forth on the virtues of Italian food today, and be a partisan in the Fukuoka ramen chain rivalry tomorrow. (He supports Ichiran. They aren’t in Singapore, unfortunately.)
So when he proposes a ramen joint – especially one that his friend from Japan recommended – I’m all too happy to go along.
Ikkousha is a relative newcomer in its native Kyushu, seeing as its founding date was during the Heisei era. But in Singapore, it’s been around since 2014, which would count as ‘established’. The Chijmes branch, nestled in along a whole stretch of Japanese joints, puts out an open welcome with its warm lighting and wood-based decor.
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.
Not going to lie – it’s been a tough couple weeks for the old B.
In Tarakoské, a language I’ve been building for the last several years, there are two words for the state of being tired. I guess the best translation is ‘tiredness’ and ‘fatigue’. Now, tiredness is what a person experiences when he’s been doing a lot of things. Fatigue, on the other hand, is more like the material science use of the word – it’s what a person experiences when a lot of things are happening to him.
Tiredness I don’t mind. But fatigue? And, with that, the abiding sense that there was something you could have done, but somehow you didn’t and just chose to sit there and take it? So much worse. So, so much worse. Let’s hope the rest of this year will be more tired than fatiguing.
But anyway – it turns out Jupiter makes sounds! And meanwhile, for this issue: other natural sounds, a strange relic of the Cold War in the middle of nowhere in America, and a love letter film to ramen in Tampopo.
It’s funny how chicken, which is just about the mildest and least flavourful meat, has one of the most distinctively flavoured fats. My favourite step in making homemade chicken rice is the rendering – low flame and a pot half filled with scraps and skin, and then the slowly spreading aroma, if aroma is the word for it.
At Menya Takeichi, they certainly are aware of how potent this smell can be, judging by the flasks of mild soup they offer to thin out the noodle broth. Nutty, sweetish, with a subtle whiff of feathers and gooeyness from collagen, the stock can reek a little – a property it shares with roasted pork bones, the base of tonkotsu ramen. But can chicken also play well with the versatile, easygoing noodles? Well, in the hands of an acclaimed Tokyoite chicken ramen chain, yes.
This was an invited tasting. Deep gratitude to the host and fellow tasters.
Humans are visual animals, and for restaurants to give people something to look at is nothing new. The Japanese absolutely love that, to the point they have a term (moritsuke) for it, even if that is a term normally used for more refined dishes than ramen. Ramen is fast food. Ramen rarely cries out for artful decoration.
But what ramen could use, visually, is a bit of spectacle, and that’s what Shin-Sapporo Ramen is happy to provide with their new special. They’ve done their bit to hype the new special with a bit of mystery, just calling it Fire Ramen, which could really mean anything. They probably mean ‘fire’ figuratively. I’ve written before about how capsaicin works by tricking your mouth into thinking it’s on fire. That must be what they’re driving at.
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.
Isn’t it lovely, sometimes, to have a scheme go awry? I wasn’t planning to be anywhere near the Adelphi the day I stumbled upon Sweet Basil; the plan was to head to the Esplanade and get my tickets for an upcoming concert (Hélène Grimaud! Playing Ravel! I will review it). But as it happened, there was something else going on and the Esplanade was cordoned off – something about men driving about in funny-shaped cars at high speed while lots of people watch on. I still am not sure what it was.
(Now, I jest of course. I know it was the Formula 1 races, seeing as it’s been screamed at everyone in City Hall station for a whole month. Whither subtlety, modern civilisation?)
I would like to say it was pure serendipity and Formula 1 that brought me to Sweet Basil, but it was in fact aroma – the sweetish, avian aroma of chicken fat rendering, to be precise, as they prepare their takeaway classic, chicken cracklings. The scent lays down a trail past the rare coins and audio equipment stores, leading to a place that doesn’t look like it just celebrated its first birthday earlier this year. Instead, with its wall menu and drinks in a fridge and general austerity, it is more like a meticulously clean version of the eateries serving meals in old-school shopping malls like Sim Lim Square.
Let me propose the following idea – the reason ramen has become such a foundational dish in Japanese cuisine is because it has two contradictory properties – endless flexibility, and endless reproducibility.
In the century or so since the Chinese brought their lamian to Japan, there has been a steady explosion in diversity. Do you like your ramen full of the pungent, creamy aroma of bone marrow? Done (Tonkotsu). Maybe you prefer it overloaded with fats, like strips of lard? Sure (Tsubame style). You just want a bowl of ‘normal’ ramen, but you want to play with it? Yeah, okay (Tsukemen). Or maybe you want your daily allotment of capsaicin in your usually non-spicy lunch. We could do that (Nagoya’s Taiwan ramen). Once you’ve found your niche, though, the idea is simple enough, tasty and enduring enough, that you can turn it out – or eat it – day after day for decades (or until the kidneys give out, at least).
Takeda Keisuke is no stranger to the flexibility of ramen, of course, and the empire he’s been building in Singapore embodies this understanding. I mean, take an educated guess at what Tonkotsu King offers, or what Tori (Chicken) King is all about. But my favourite, always beckoning to me every time I’m around Suntec City, is also the most generalist of his franchise, Keisuke Tokyo.