There’s nothing quite like dessert to make old Babette ponder the big questions of life. In the case of Poppy Pops, the obvious question is – is it better to serve ice cream in a cup or cone, or on a stick? This is an important question, for from an objective perspective, popsicles are clearly worse. The whole ice cream is exposed, providing a bigger surface area for melting. Licking is an ungraceful activity that only speeds up the melting, after which gravity naturally pulls the melted ice cream onto the hand that’s holding it. And you can’t take a small sample of a popsicle, either.
It’s a poor arrangement, but for one thing. It looks great. It’s photogenic, it shows off the ice cream. And in the days of Instagram, maybe that’s enough. Thankfully Popppy Pops doesn’t stop at merely good looking. They work a little harder.
I don’t really remember when my mum came up with this recipe, but I do remember what it was like having this for the first time. I remember we didn’t have the ingredients to make another soup, and anyway there was a bunch of celery that needed using.
Why that celery was there to start with, I have no idea. Western celery, the thick sort, has never been big in our kitchen; even now we mostly use it just for this, or for stir-fries. But its aroma – clean, fresh, botanic – really does a lot for this soup. Most hot soups are great for chilly days when it’s raining outside; far fewer are suitable when the sun is blazing away. This is one of them. (That it’s full of vegetables is nice too.)
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.
I’ve been playing a game of hide and seek with KOKI Tamagoyaki for a while, albeit in my own mind. Twice I’ve come too late for there to be any of their choux puffs. But this time I’m here – five minutes before the teatime offer ends, when the shelves are full of the goods. Yes.
Koki is, as the name suggests, a tamagoyaki place – serving the square-pan, rolled, mildly sweet Japanese omelettes with a range of toppings. Except that even now its dessert options – choux (or ‘shuu’) puffs – are already overshadowing the egg dish. (Honestly, take a look at the Burpple reviews of the place. How many tamagoyaki pics do you see? Precisely.)
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.
What are the odds? First venture into the northeast – that wild, desolate land of half a million people – in 2017, and after wandering about in HDB estates as I remembered from my childhood, I strike gold. Gloopy, ivory-coloured gold.
(Actually, the odds were well in my favour. It’s called internet research and it often works.)
Sin Heng Kee reminds me of another northeastern spot I enjoy, namely Lau Wang Claypot Delights. The two share similar origin stories – claypotting and porridging their way from a single stall to taking over a whole coffeeshop niche. Their menus even overlap slightly, with Sin Heng Kee having a few claypot items. So clearly the moral is – to be successful in Singapore’s food scene, sell stuff in claypots. Or be a hipster cafe. Better still, a hipster claypot-serving cafe. Is that not yet a thing? Get on it, people.
It is absolutely pissing down outside, and with my usual foresight and forethought, I am stuck. As the clouds gathered above Bukit Timah, I dithered my way around a range of possible choices, before heading for the one which would be hardest to escape in case of rain. For you can’t get out of Crown Bakery & Cafe without a car if it pours. It’s right in the middle between two MRT stations and there’s no covered way, not even to the bus stop.
I am stuck. I might even have to get me another of their pastries. And you know what, that’s perfectly fine by me.
I am part of that power which eternally wills evil, and eternally works good.
— ‘Faust’, Goethe (1749 – 1832)
The word ‘sin’ gets thrown about very easily when it comes to food. We don’t hear much talk about murderers being sinners nowadays, outside of a church. But dark chocolate, pepperoni, fried food, a good grilled cheese? All sin. No doubt this is partly because we recognise that food – even the sinful ones, the luxurious and tasty – is always a good thing. A city with many of the avaricious, wrathful or envious is a hard place to live. A city with many of the gluttonous tends to be brilliant.
Alter Ego, a new concept by the people behind A Poké Theory, plays on this theme. The promo and website play up the contrasts in its menu, but it seems a little ahead of its time here. Elsewhere it is the absurdities of the clean eating cult that increases the tension over how ‘good’ your food is; Singapore, thankfully, has yet to be drawn into the stupidities of kombucha, gotu kola, sucka, etc. So without that tension, Alter Ego is really a place where people who work on poké all the time decide to work on other things as well. That’s not as dramatic, but it sure as hell works.
Singapore has been stressing me out a lot recently, and it was a recommendation and casual remark from my good friend that enlightened me as to why. She was trying to explain why she liked Noodle Cafe so much, though I can already see why from the menu and the general, slightly slapdash, effortlessly grungy interior.
‘I often come here alone, you know,’ she says. ‘I sometimes get a bowl of noodles and sit here for like an hour.’ That’s what it is! I haven’t found a home away from home, an alone spot.
Mind you, I’m fussy about my alone spots. As I am allergic to hipsters, my quiet spots have to be low-bullshit affairs – no ‘vintage’, no gimmicks. The food must be cheap and good. And it should be reasonably easy to access. In London, Mamuśka fit that bill almost perfectly. And these are the criteria I’ll be using for Noodle Cafe too.
There’s no lack of Korean TV shows, and one of my favourites is still Three Meals a Day, especially the Gochang season. It’s a fun show – the farming, the cute animals, four men bumbling about but in a positive way.
Then there’s the way Chajumma cooks, which is – for want of a less gendered term – just quite manly. There’s a big pot over a fire. You throw stuff (good quality stuff, of course) in it. Then you check if it’s cooked, and serve it up. It’s not careless cooking by any means; it’s attentiveness without neuroticism, mindful yet still relaxed. And it always looks so good.
Sadly I don’t live in a place where cabbages and Cheongyang chilies grow in the front yard, so a supermarket will have to do. That, and a Korean restaurant nearby which is willing to sell a tub of reasonably mature kimchi at a reasonable price.