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 far as I can remember, salted duck has never been common in Singapore. In fact, I can remember exactly one place which sold it, which was at the old Sembawang Hill Food Centre, and I always had that every time I dropped by (which was not frequent).
As such, the news of a new salted duck place in Toa Payoh is intriguing, and I’m thankful I went to look for Benson Salted Duck – a reason to revisit Singapore’s oldest HDB estate, where my mother used to live. She has her list of places round here which we still go to every time we drop by. And I suspect we will be adding to that list now.
Taking advantage of the Chinese New Year sales, we finally have a proper flat-bottomed pan, which means we can pan-fry stuff without oil splattering everywhere. Which in turn means the revival of a classic.
Here we use pomfret, but honestly any fish with firm flesh that doesn’t flake when pan-seared should do. Spanish mackerel (batang) and tuna are awesome with this treatment. Sear, then cloak in the night-dark sauce and plenty of aromatics to finish, wafting the aromas of caramel, ginger, garlic… not all good things take a long time.
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.
The Singapore Met Service forecasted that February would be dry and windy, but they only got the second one right. Every day there’s been either great towers of clouds looming past, or out-and-out thunderstorms. It’s not exactly going out weather, in other words. But who needs going out when you can have stew?
Or maybe I can claim the shiny patina of Korean-ness and call this a jjigae instead. It’s got all the basic components of Korean cooking, all the bright colours and pungent aromas – kimchi, garlic shoots, leeks. Into this mix goes the hefty flavour of rendered, charred, golden roast pork (sio bak).
Be warned: this is not first date food. This is only for when you already know it’s real.
When Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, named the cocoa tree Theobroma cacao, he knew what he was talking about. For Theobroma comes from the Greek ‘theo’, god, and ‘broma’, food; high praise for anything else, but almost an understatement for chocolate.
Singapore is no stranger to chocolatiers, of course. But then come a few gushing posts from my friends (inveterate foodies, the lot) about Demochoco, an online-only joint. Their website is intriguing and encouraging – innovative flavours on one hand, single-origin on the other, clearly meticulous sourcing throughout. I get in touch with Jialiang, the proprietor, who very kindly sells me a sneak preview of their tasting set.
‘Don’t review the packaging,’ he tells me, because it isn’t settled yet. I don’t know what he’s on about though, because the white boxes are lovely, and- all right I’ll stop here.
The first time I walked past Ah Seng Bak Kut Teh, I was on my way somewhere else and didn’t really notice it. (Also, I was still half full from porridge.) But after several circles round the few blocks, trying to find a Thai place that Google Maps insists is right here, I give up, and en route to giving up I happen upon the place again. Oh, what the hell.
Only after I’ve ordered and sat down do I notice the decor. The counter is done like the façade of an old building in Chinatown or Geylang, complete with faux windows. There are old school advertisements framed on the walls. Flying Spaghetti Monster help us – the hipster virus has even got to the BKT joints now. But is it just a surface infection, a trendy skin rash, or has it gotten all the way in?
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.
Most restaurants pay attention to how they taste, and many to how they look. But in Singapore at least, the question of how they sound – the presence of music, its type, its volume – tends to be neglected. But precisely because I have low expectations here, I cannot decide if Hungry Bazterdz is intentionally having the Backstreet Boys serenade my first sandwich-eating experience with them. Is it neglect, or inspiration?
They do switch to a slower, chiller soundtrack that’s more to my taste when I visit again, not that it matters. Idiot that I am, I come in at the start of the CBD lunch rush. I only hear the music vaguely, amid the frantic lunchtime chatter, the ringing of bells and the calling of numbers as the staff try to match sandwiches to hungry people. I’m practically sitting on two other people and being shoved into the wooden ledge on the wall that serves as a table, trying to find angles for photos without accidentally molesting anyone.
It’s the sort of dining experience that I normally hate. So would I do it again at Hungry Bazterdz? Hell yes.