The sweltering, relentless heat. The whiff of char kway teow from a coffee shop as we passed by (more on that later). The crush of crowds at Jonker Street, the aroma of foods curling round old shophouses. And then the bright red bowl of asam fish at Restoran Nyonya Suan.
My dad and I spent three days in Melaka, and now – just a day after returning – I can remember just a few things without the aid of photos. Melaka has been a melting pot long before Singapore was even a thing; but while Singapore is still forging on into ever more turbulent and dynamic cultural mixing, Melaka has somewhat crystallised. The multiculturalism, having long soaked into its old bones, gains a certain retrospective clarity and solidity.
It is key to emotional health, I think, to understand that most things in life will turn out pretty badly. Things will come too early or too late. People will be maddening ciphers, their motivations inscrutable, their signals garbled, their best intentions catastrophic. We must convince ourselves of the ubiquity of unsuccess, so that when we happen upon a place like Char, every now and then, it feels all the better.
(Note: Now that I have your agreement on this, you will not mind that I was unable to take a picture of the char siew at Char. I know, I know. Such is life!)
I’ve heard about Char a while now, from friends and their friends who spoke in hyperbolic terms of the char siew. But they also told me it was ‘modern’. That, and a look at the location, curbed my enthusiasm. Great, I think. I’ll be eating lovely char siew in some half-arsed imitation warehouse.
It’s not like Singapore has ever gone off eating fried stuff, but… on the way to the MRT and Serangoon, I find out that Four Fingers is setting up at Causeway Point. This means there must be more than 10 places in one mall where I can have fried chicken of some sort.
Which makes me wonder if we’re having too much of a good thing, especially when considering Fried Chicken Master (炸雞大獅). The Taiwanese concept has landed in NEX, clearly bent on representing one of the most popular dishes in the Taiwanese night market pantheon. But do we really need this? Does Fried Chicken Master (hereafter FCM) have something new to say about this street food staple?
On reflection, there was a period in my youth when Bukit Panjang actually figured quite prominently. I used to take piano lessons there, and when Bukit Panjang Plaza was still new, it was where I went for BBQ pork ribs. (Cafe Cartel doesn’t even exist anymore, I don’t think.)
But I haven’t been here for a decade, and so – after a Sunday afternoon stroll in Choa Chu Kang – Dad and I decide to head down. We try the Hillion first, but think better of braving those crowds and retreat to BPP, and to Ju Hao. A nice, grounded choice – it’s a lamian/xiao long bao joint. We know exactly what we’re in for.
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.
I like wandering malls on those few holidays when most shops are closed – Christmas in London, CNY here. Maybe, as a reaction to the festival, it has the same logic as the people who go overseas during this period – just to get away from the socialising that would be necessary if they were here. It’s also interesting to see which few places are still open.
To find that Riverside Grilled Fish is among the open restaurants, though, is a real surprise. Of all the Asian imports in the Raffles City basement, only the ones from China and Taiwan showed up. But unlike neighbouring Din Tai Fung, Riverside was not rammed to the gates with white people. In fact there was only one white guy, at the next table. We’ll get to him shortly.
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.
The first time I saw the name ‘Our Tampines Hub’, I thought it was just some possessive eastie who really likes the place. But no – turns out, in our gradual slide into Orwellian horror, it’s the actual name of the actual building complex. Repeat it enough times, I guess, and it will feel true. This is Our Tampines Hub. Our Tampines Hub. Our Tampines Hub…
Anyway, wouldn’t have known about this place, or be within 10 km of it, if not for a little errand I had to run. Also a blazingly sunny day that forced me to seek shelter anywhere. But since I was there, Commonground – well-situated right at the front of the building – seemed worth a visit.
This evening was not supposed to go this way. I had a reservation for another restaurant ready, but the companion was having none of it, chanting Yoogane at me until I gave up. So here we were in Bugis, in the queue poring over dishes spanning all the shades of gochujang crimson, sandwiched between excited groups of the beauteous youthful.
People say eating chilli makes your skin better but I think causation runs the other way – it is the taut-skinned and finely chiseled, who would simply glow if they sweat, that don’t mind hunching over jjigae or hotpot. That, or the very hungry, which I was.
As I typed this first paragraph, I was full. I was so full my stomach pressed lightly against my chin. So full that it didn’t feel like merely a weight, but pressure, pushing out in every direction. So full that the very thought of eating food, or drinking, was anathema.
Now, barely 5 hours later, and I am hungrily eyeing the box of pineapple tarts on the table. Being insatiable is, of course, the whole point of Chinese New Year. There should be only addition, never subtraction. People greet each other with wishes for perpetual surpluses – not that we’ve got enough to live comfortably, but that we’ve got more than that. Preferably more than ever previously possessed. More, more, more.