This was an invited tasting. Much gratitude to the hosts, organisers and fellow guests.
Maybe I’m just a curmudgeon, but if you ask me, the history of bubble tea in Singapore is one long story of featuritis. Not too long ago we had milk tea, with or without those wonderful tapioca pearls, and that was that. Now I spend almost as long at the counter deciphering the available options as I do actually drinking the tea.
Of course, most of you know about LiHO now – though more as a function of mourning for Gong Cha, whose outlets will be replaced by the local brand. But when LiHO came with an invitation to try their cheese tea, I knew nothing about that. I was slightly conflicted. To be honest, it sounded gimmicky – just another topping for tea. Except… cheese. Even if I was skeptical, I felt I had to find out.
New food trends hit Singapore every so often, with lots of fire and smoke and everything. But more interesting, to me, is the process after – the quiet percolation of trendy foods throughout the market, the process of food stalls catching up to the restaurants. The first wave of imitations are often off the mark. But then comes another iteration, and another – hungry mouths driving ambitious hands.
Many cuisines don’t ever make it to this stage; it’s the ones that do that are truly established. Japanese is one of them. And where Japanese katsudon is concerned, Washoku Goen feels like a culmination of that process – food court Japanese that is properly honed, not least because it is Japanese.
As we all know, if we’ve been paying attention in science class, it was Louis Pasteur who proved that food spoils due to bacteria from outside (rather than spontaneously sprouting bacteria). And he proved it so elegantly – a sterilised flask of broth, isolated from the outside by a swan-necked tube. Bacteria can’t get in – therefore the broth stays fresh.
It’s a very fitting experiment for a Frenchman, too, because French cuisine has been utilising this technique of preservation for centuries. Their tradition of meat-based wizardry, as practiced in the charcuterie, relies on this method for some of France’s most famous dishes, submerging meat in fat that then forms a solid seal against bacteria. Confit de canard is one such dish, and so are rillettes.
They’re basically the French cousins of pulled pork – the same dry-heat low-and-slow process, teasing pork into flavourful fibres, but with an added dose of smoothness in the use of lard. And it’s easy to make too.
To make this recipe I’ve used an oven, but you can probably do it over low heat on a stove as well – experiment and tell me how it goes!
This was an invited tasting. Deep gratitude to the hosts and fellow tasters.
Oh look, it’s the Special Forces boys!
Well, I didn’t think it was that easy to get your attention, ladies. Seorae, on the other hand, knows exactly how this works. A TV screen outside replays the scene of South Korea’s impossibly beautiful soldiers pigging out in one of their restaurants; there’s a life-size poster of that iconic shoe-wearing (shoe-removing?) pose at the entrance.
Yes, they are featured in Descendants of the Sun; I just thought you’d like to know. But what I really took away from watching the scene is the possible reason why I don’t enjoy Korean BBQ that much – it’s because in Singapore we often miss out half the fun. A session at the galbi joint isn’t only about food – it’s about the conversation, and sufficient amounts of alcohol to knock out a commando in the morning.
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.
Over Chinese New Year something a little weird came over me. It’s almost as if I’ve temporarily become sick of the whole new-chasing thing and am reverting to the pre-food-writing me. For the pre-food-writing me is a lazy beast, and a lazy beast is a predictable one. I like eating, but I don’t like taking risks. So I had one go-to place for curry fish head, one for steak, and so on.
But even then, Al-Azhar Eating Restaurant (is there any other kind of restaurant?) was never my go to for anything in particular. Rather, it was my friend going through a bad patch that led us here, based on nothing more than vague nostalgia for the time when the world was young, the MRT had like three lines, and we were still wearing khaki shorts at 16 due to ridiculous elite school historical reasons. Perhaps more relevantly, it was closing on 9pm on a Friday and the city centre was a writhing mass of hungry, sozzle-seeking humanity. So we scarpered into the wilds of Bukit Timah.
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.
The great thing about street food is that it is pretty much context independent. Because street food can be made anywhere, it seems at home everywhere. And so you can dial back heavily on the decor – everything, from walls to chairs and tables, just need to exist. That’s the vibe of the old pasar – I don’t make it a lovely place with a lovely view, because a view is not what you’re here for.
And because of this, efforts to zhuzh up street food, to make it presentable in a fine restaurant with banquettes and spotlights, can be hilarious. I’ve seen the wonders that sous vide can do to chicken rice (not very wondrous), and tasted the magic that carrageenan does to chili crab sauce (not all that magical). In both cases, the restaurant they built to house the tools had a lot more interest than the ‘refined’ food.
But Pasarbella’s Suntec branch doesn’t need to worry about that, because they’ve gone the other way, pulling street food ‘back into the hood’. They’ve ‘built’ a ‘space’, basically, by slathering it in no-statement graffiti. It’s hideous. I’ve read that it’s ‘inspired’ by the Lower East Side, and am only surprised the Lower East Side hasn’t sued for reputational damage. But maybe in focusing me entirely on the food it fulfils its function.
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.