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.
To people who farm, it is the climate that determines what is in season. But for us city folk, the ‘seasons’ run around the schedules of promotions and sales – and, of course, our own momentary cravings.
For this dish, we have a large bag of scallops because they were half-price at the local supermarket. We have broccoli because they were freshly in, from Australia no less, in the wet market. And as for the cherry tomatoes? Mum likes them. And why shouldn’t she?
Two serendipitous encounters came together to make this dish – one from months ago, one from this morning. The first was Taiwanese XO sauce, a mash-up of chili with several sorts of dried seafood, a specialty of the seafood-rich Penghu Islands. Last year a friend gave us two jars of the stuff; there’s still half a jar in the fridge.
Then, while out buying shallots and lemongrass at the wet market, I came across bags of beautifully mottled baby brinjals. (They’re called graffiti eggplants, it turns out. The more you know.) We don’t even eat brinjals usually, but I just couldn’t resist.
Their partnership was inevitable. One is a soft, Ditto-esque flavour mimic, taking after whatever accompanies it. The other is light spice and sweetness surfing on a vast, surging wave of seafood umami. They fight hunger.
Yes, yes, I know. I know what you’re going to ask. We’ve just passed Christmas, is it a little bit too early for a CNY-ish recipe? To which I say, pah! Zipdelah! Speth! Of course it isn’t too early.
If there’s one thing that makes Chinese New Year more bearable by far than the Westerners’ holiday season, it is that it doesn’t expect us to eat things we would actively avoid for the rest of the year. Who in their right mind roasts a turkey in March? There’s something better called chicken.
But there is always a space at the table for Pacific clams. Good old Siliqua patula, it turns out, is a particularly broad razor clam (a dagger clam, then?), and its exuberant springiness, the rich brine with a hint of meatiness in it, makes it good for a quick stir fry with just about anything. Just be sure not to fry it past the point of rubberiness.
Writing Dear Babette means I’m somewhat obliged to chase new stuff – to dig around for what’s opening, what’s cool and what’s incoming. I’ll be honest here, though – Five Nines was not my first choice for a night out with good friends at Keong Saik. The place I wanted to go to (I won’t name it, that’d be churlish) wasn’t open on the only day we could meet.
So, fine, new place it is. And certainly it’s a confident place, this. Five Nines is a metallurgy term, used to signify that a precious metal is 99.999% pure. Which is why I’m sorry to say that, from my visit, it feels more like a mining operation in a place with both gold and pyrite in the ground.
It is an easy trap, in my opinion, to anticipate something too much and be set up for disappointment. The first I knew of Verre was blatantly one such trap. It was a beautiful looking seafood papillote, parchment unfurled like rose petals, prawns and scallops and juices inside making a whole range of autumnal hues.
And because it looked so very lovely in the photo, I decided not to have it when I finally dropped by Verre with a friend. My expectations were high enough as is. And I was, to be honest, bracing myself already even before the pal arrived. While the restaurant occupies an absolutely lovely niche facing the quiet upper reaches of the former Singapore River, the atmosphere inside somehow felt… odd. Something was off – something felt off. But I couldn’t put my finger on it.
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.
The only public transport to our destination is a double-decker bus that, right after our stop, will drive straight on a ferry and head across Poole Harbour to Sandbanks. As the curving road straightens out a little, closing in on the promontory, we catch a glimpse of the sunset on our left, the golden sphere settling in over the ridges and glimmering sea. We gawp, but the driver merely tells us of greater beauties. At sunrise, he says, and if the clouds cooperate, the whole sky turns red and gold with scattered light.
I say to give a sense of how beautiful Shell Bay Seafood Restaurant’s location is. It reminds me a little of a bar on top of a certain building in Singapore whose cocktails are all based around ice water, but which still reels in the Yusofs with gleeful abandon. And the view there has nothing on this, with the sea seemingly just underfoot. My point is, with its location, Shell Bay really doesn’t need to try. And yet they do put in effort – and for the most part it turns out well.