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.
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.
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.
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.
So I don’t think anyone has questioned my zeal for Mexican food – or at least food from a certain corner of Mexico which has percolated to our shores. (The day mole becomes widely available here will be a very good day.) But if someone were to question this for some reason… well, that’s why I’m putting this out here first. Would Babette write about any Mexican place they come across? Anything that serves a burrito?
Here’s your answer, hypothetical critics. (Also this. And come think of it, this too. I’ve got a track record, people, I’ve got evidence.)
Man, this place has been on my list the longest, longest time. Long ago, at a work-related function, I first saw the logo of Rumah Makan Minang – imitating the distinctive, buffalo-horn eaves of the rumah gadang, the traditional communal houses of the Minangkabau people. The crew, working noisily and efficiently, soon had a long table decked with catering trays. A taste of their chicken, and of squid cooked in an ink-black sauce, and I have been looking to come to Minang ever since.
The Minangkabau, one of Asia’s few matrilineal societies, hail from West Sumatra but have spread out over maritime Southeast Asia. They have had an outsize impact on the region. Our first president, Yusof Ishak, was of Minangkabau descent, as was Indonesia’s first vice-president and Malaysia’s first Yang di-Pertuan Agong. Others work their influence more humbly and subtly, one serving of rendang or nasi Padang at a time.