Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Singapore: seeing stars

When the Ewing and I last made the trek Down Under we stopped over in Hong Kong, where Tim Ho Wan had just been awarded the honour of cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in the world. Queue a pair of very hungry and jet-lagged travellers queuing outside for breakfast.

Fast forward seven years and our latest jaunt to the the Lucky Country included a few days in Singapore, where the snappily monikered Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodles had just been awarded the honour of cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in the world. Queue a pair of very hungry and jet-lagged travellers queuing outside for breakfast...

Strictly we ate at the recently opened new offshoot of HKSSCRN - the original hawker stall is found opposite at the Chinatown Complex Market and Food Centre. But the same quality is ensured by chef-owner Chan Hon Meng, who oversees the new kitchen, with his wife ably managing things over the road. As it was already a sweaty 32 degrees outside, I also appreciated the air-con and iced tea at the new gaff.

The roasted chicken with fluffy rice and boiled peanuts was very good. Better than Flame and Fried three piece meal at three o'clock in the morning? Debatable. But they had better chilli sauce on offer here, plus  some excellent pickled chillies. We also tried the char sui pork and egg noodles. My kinda breakfast food. 

The food was good but my favourite part of the meal came when the Ewing excitedly announced to the mother and son who had asked to share our table while patiently waiting for their food that they were in for 'a real treat'. Until we discovered out they were locals who lived around the corner and came for their chicken fix every Sunday. 

Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodles wasn't the only entry from Singapore's inaugural Michelin Guide we visited during our trip. Tai Wah Pork Noodle, serving bowls of it's signature bak chor mee - a dish of Teochew origin that features fresh egg noodles tossed in a sauce of chilli, oil, vinegar, soy and pepper, served with minced meat, pork slices, pork liver, mushrooms, meat balls, deep-fried lard and crispy sole fish - was also on the hit list.

As it was out last day I bartered with the Ewing: I would spend the morning queuing in the stifling heat for the coveted bowls of noodles - while she relaxed with an ice coffee and the guidebook, planning our tour of Little India and Arab Street in the afternoon

Queuing in the airless centre proved a test of my impatience; while the line looked deceptively benign, containing perhaps twenty people ahead of me, as each dish is constructed from scratch from piles of fresh ingredients and using a plethora of different dishes and utensils, it inched forward at a painfully glacial rate. My mood was also not helped by the guy in front of me deceptively appearing to be on his own, but then proceeding to order takeout for his whole office.

Getting near to the front of the queue at least meant I had the entertainment of watching each bowl being carefully composed to order. Something that proved fascinating - as well as somewhat frustrating - and I have infinite respect for the guys toiling manically in the heat with no let-up, a common sight at many hawker stands across the city. Especially with so many people, and so much stuff, seemingly haphazardly squashed in such a small space. 

Still, good things come to those who wait, and being a fan of noodles and pork and chilli and vinegar (and chunks of crispy lard), I was very excited to finally sit down and get my chopsticks into the biggest bowl, at $10, on offer.

Maybe it was the stifling heat, or the interminable wait, or seeing the heaps of raw liver – like a scene from Rosemary’s Baby - and fish balls waiting to be boiled, but, it appears that things are not always the sum of their parts. 

While I didn’t actively dislike it I found myself indifferent at best, disappointed by the lack of chilli punch and the tang of the black vinegar. Although, this is someone who carries sriatcha in their bag for all eventualities and has probably beaten their taste buds into submission with an overdose of salt and vinegar Pringles.

The Ewing did enjoy it, as well as the seaweed soup that was served alongside, so it wasn’t a completely lost cause. And I did get a great tour around Little India afterwards. 

Alongside the starred establishments in the new guide there were also 34 Bib Gourmands awarded for ‘exceptional good food at moderate prices’. Although it was a little difficult to see how our bills at the previous two establishments could be bettered, we did manage to try a few more places on the list, starting with an early morning visit to The Amoy Food Centre. 

Although four stalls had been awarded the honour, only Curry Puff was open so early, meaning a brace of freshly-fried pastries became part of a rather unorthodox breakfast, alongside the Ewing’s avocado smoothie and my freshly squeezed watermelon juice. 

Available in three flavours – chicken; black pepper chicken and sardine, they resemble a deep-fried equivalent to our pasty, but with an even more friable crust that flakes apart in layers that look like the back of an oyster shell.

The black pepper chicken was rather like something you'd get at a good dim sum restaurant; the sweet and herbal filling balanced the sharp bite of black pepper. The curried sardine, stuffed with spiced potato, might have sounded a little outlandish, but tasted even better. Like a samosa on steroids and surprisingly light and greaseless.

The famous hawker centre at Newton Circus, located in the upmarket Newton area of the city,  is often seen as being one of the pricier and most touristy. And, with the design of the stalls based on the old colonial houses nearby, it's also one of the prettiest.

Previously it's been known for excessive ‘hawking’ (touting for business, sometime aggressively), something stall owners are not permitted to do. Although this seems to have improved since one stall holder was suspended for shaking down a group of American tourists £500 dollars for dinner. Thankfully, our bill was much lower, and the atmosphere on our visit was amongst the most friendly and laid-back of anywhere on our trip.

The primary reason for our trip was to eat the sambal stingray at Alliance Seafood. While the eponymous crab is still the most famous dish in Singapore, the ray – fresh fins of the cartilaginous fish, spread with a fiery sambal paste and grilled, has become one of the most popular, hawker dishes, and one I was excited to try.  

When we were discussing it with a friend before our trip, the Ewing was dubious about whether she would want to eat it because of the ethical issues over sustainability. Of course, the smell of the banana leaf-wrapped ray being grilled proved all too persuasive and soon two pairs of chopsticks were making light work of the gelatinous flakes of fish. 

White rice, a dish of stir-fried greens and a squeeze of calamansi lime helped damped the fiery sambal a paste made from, amongst other things - Indian walnuts, tiny shallots and chilli – although  the stall owner had a glint in his eye as he watched us tuck in, and was keen to know if it was too hot when he cleared our plates. The stripped bones and spent lime shells told him everything he needed to know.

Also helping cool down us down were the drinks from Michael’s Bar next door. The lady working there had clocked us straight away and had soon bought over large bottles of Tiger beer with icy tankards. The muggy weather and spicy food soon meant we were making our way through the drinks menu, much to her delight as she excitedly explained how they made their fresh sugarcane juice and iced lemon tea. 

As it was our friend Michael’s birthday, our new friend was more than happy to drag her husband out for a photo to send to him just before we left.

Another reason we were keeping so well hydrated during our visit was because we were waiting for Heng (between Alliance Seafood and Michael’s) to open so we could try their famous carrot cake. Unlike our walnut-studded desert typically smothered in cream cheese icing, Singaporean carrot cake is a savoury dish made of rice flour and radish steamed and cut into cubes.

We tried both the white, fried with eggs and salty preserved radish; and the black, fried with sweet soy sauce with chilli sauce on the side. Thankfully they both proved worth the wait, my favourite being which ever one I was digging into at the time.

The Famous Sungei Road Trishaw Laksa - another Bib Gourmand recipient, found in the bustling Hong Lim Centre - are indeed famous for their take on spicy noodle soups with a healthy twist. Selling three unique versions -  featuring tamarind, coconut milk and, most unusually, fresh fruit juice - its popularity was in evidence by the queue of hungry workers lining up for an early lunch break when they opened their shutters at 11 o'clock.

While the Ewing was insistent she had ordered the fruit juice mee siam, the picture displayed at the front of the stall point to the fact we actually received the Asia Delight laksa. Whatever it was, it was a pretty spectacular bowl of food, featuring a light coconutty gravy bobbing with crayfish, fishcake, large prawns, cockles, fried bean curd and slices of chicken. One of my top dishes of the trip.

After such a light and healthy intro it was only right our next stop was at Outram Park Fried Kway Teow Mee, just around the corner. Made from flat rice noodles - the name literally means 'stir-fried rice cake strips - the dish is cooked over very high heat with light and dark soy sauce, chilli, blood cockles, bean sprouts, egg and chopped Chinese chives. 

Originally a popular labourer's traditional breakfast, it enjoys a reputation not too dissimilar to our fry up, thanks to its high saturated fat content due to being fried in generous amounts of lard. 

As it turns out Tiggers don't like blood cockles much. Or beanspouts, or egg, (yes, I do keep trying both) or even big lumps of crunchy pork fat. In fact even the Ewing baulked at the cold and quivering lumps of bivalve sitting on top of the steaming hot smoky noodles. Still, it didn't stop us demolishing most of it, washed down with an ice cold sugarcane juice that matched the colour of the tabletops.

Our final meal with a gong came at Song Fa, a mini chain of restaurants specialising in Bak Kut Teh or ‘meat bone tea’. A dish with Hokkien/Teochew roots, it features pork - usually ribs, sometimes loin and offal - in a rich herbal broth featuring star anise, cinnamon, cloves and garlic. Despite the name, the dish contains no tea but refers to a strong oolong tea which is usually served alongside, to help aid digestion.

As with the kway teow noodles before, it was traditionally served to fortify the workers before a heavy day's work, the dish is now more commonly enjoyed later in the day - although I think you have to be rather more acclimatised to temperatures in the mid-thirties, coupled with stifling humidity to find the idea of hot soup and hot tea the most appealing lunchtime fare. 

The bak kut tea served here is Teochew style; a light broth with less sweet soy than the Hokkien incarnation, but plenty of black pepper and garlic. Despite my reservations, it was strangely refreshing – I suppose not unlike the English compulsion to drink endless steaming mugs of PG Tips on even the balmiest days of summer; a habit my old physics teacher always assured us would have a cooling effect.

While not being perhaps much of a looker – the blanched grey ribs bobbing in a broth like dishwater, if I were to be uncharitable – flavour-wise it was spot on. The meat was sweet and tender while still retaining some of the chew that makes a rib such a pleasure to eat, while the savoury broth, with its deep peppery heat, was an invigorating panacea in the clammy conditions. I stand corrected Mr Marshall.

One thing that still remains, fancy Michelin gongs or not, is my propensity for ordering gnarly things from the menu that I later regret and this trip was no exception. While I already knew that chicken feet were not really my bag from previous failed experimentation, and the Ewing had made it abundantly clear that they weren’t hers, I couldn’t resist ordering them with braised bean curd, partly based on the picture on the menu.

It is not an exaggeration to say these could have been used as a prop in Jurassic Park, looking more like pterodactyl claws that any poultry I had ever seen. Taste-wise, they were also just as I remembered them, but on a bigger scale and with more to battle with. Bony and knobby with that unique cartilaginous texture; something that could most charitably be described as an ‘acquired taste’.

Although, spare a thought for my poor wife, who maintains watching me try to eat it was probably worse than trying to actually consume it. As Oscar Wilde said 'we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars'.

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