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.
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.
I like wandering malls on those few holidays when most shops are closed – Christmas in London, CNY here. Maybe, as a reaction to the festival, it has the same logic as the people who go overseas during this period – just to get away from the socialising that would be necessary if they were here. It’s also interesting to see which few places are still open.
To find that Riverside Grilled Fish is among the open restaurants, though, is a real surprise. Of all the Asian imports in the Raffles City basement, only the ones from China and Taiwan showed up. But unlike neighbouring Din Tai Fung, Riverside was not rammed to the gates with white people. In fact there was only one white guy, at the next table. We’ll get to him shortly.
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.
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.
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.
This was an invited tasting. Deep gratitude to the hosts and fellow tasters.
One of the smaller problems of traditional gender roles, with its demands on men to keep things to themselves, is that there is little consensus about how best to treat a father on ‘his’ day. (I already told you it’s a small problem.) Seen another way, though, this is the best thing for restaurants – a gap they can fill.
So here comes Crystal Jade Prestige to fill this gap with a champagne brunch option. The terms are as follows – for $58 ($48 for DBS/POSB cardholders), you get a choice of ten courses in total from the menu. Another $98 ($88) gets you free flow bubbly. The ten courses include 5 dim sum options (out of a list of 10), an appetiser, a wok-fried dish, a soup, a roast meat and a dessert.
This Sunday, let’s go a little bit classical with one of my favourite composers, Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937). One of the leaders of French Impressionism in classical music, he was always a careful, painstaking and perfectionist composer.
The Piano Concerto in G, completed in 1931, shows plenty of jazz influence throughout; jazz was the hot thing in Paris, and Ravel had just gone on a very successful US tour in 1928. The first and third movements have plenty of fun, almost chaotic passages, but the second is just… well, listen to it. When Marguerite Long (the pianist to whom this was dedicated) asked Ravel about this wistful, languid melody, he replied: That flowing phrase! How I worked over it bar by bar! It nearly killed me!
Do enjoy. In this week’s instalment – tuna, chicken and their effects on antibiotic resistance, a prosperous country falls apart, and Vietnam’s favourite noodles – and its tumultuous history. And also awesome archaeology in Mexico.
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.