Soon Yee Bak Kut Teh – Bugis, SG


Soon Yee Bak Kut Teh
No. 29/31 Sultan Gate
Singapore 198477
+65 6298 8538

If I had to choose among beef, chicken and pork, unquestionably the latter would be my most favorite animal protein. The diversity of cuts, textures, flavors, and the many ways it can be prepared, I feel is unsurpassed by the other two. “Just wrap it in bacon”, which could be dubbed the ‘Jeffrey Steingarten Porkosophy’, is used by many to explain how pork can add so much to the taste of any ingredient or dish. I must say I am an avid card carrying member of this Cult of Bacon.

Having spent some time in southern Alberta where I visited and toured countless times some of the province’s massive pork producing farms and slaughtering plants, I have had a good opportunity to learn about the whole gate-to-plate system that hogs go through in the mass commercial food production industry. It’s a marvel really, how such a disgusting beast that spends most of its life wallowing around in its own bodily messes, can taste so good when cooked. Even after seeing with my own eyes how they are brought to an abattoir, put to sleep, sliced open, broken down and boxed, I could not turn down offers to have a seat in a slaughterhouse test kitchen and be served various cuts of pork by the in-house chefs. Yes, I became quite immune to the whole ordeal, with my love for pork at the heart of it all.

My eating interests with pork though are limited mainly to the muscle meats. All of the other offal are something that I am not a huge fan of. But given the opportunity to try some Bak Kut Teh (translated literally as “meat bone tea”), a Chinese-origin soup that is popular in parts of the Mainland as well as southeast Asia and that I knew included some of the pig intestines, I knew that I had to be flexible. After all, I am always open to trying something that I’ve never had before, especially when I am traveling abroad. So this impromptu visit to Soon Yee, an average looking establishment built inside a concrete building near Sultan Gate Place in the Arab Street district (not far from the Bugis MRT station), led me to try those usually avoided pork innards.

Served in a clay pot, a single serving could be had for just four Singapore dollars. I chose to have a side of steamed white rice with it, as I understood it, you could also get some noodles instead as well. Visually, its not the most appetizing dish for obvious reasons. Pieces of the tenderized pork ribs, pig stomach, intestines, skin, along with other ingredients such as tau kee (which I know better as yuba in Japanese cuisine, albeit this one was a thicker wafer) and mushrooms that could all be seen inside the rich colored broth.

But when its brought to your table, the scent is quite appetizing with it being very fragrant with strong herbal tones (anise, ginseng and cloves being the most prominent) and some sharpness from the pepper. The soup itself (this type being of the Hokkien variety which is darker due to the inclusion of more soy sauce than other variants), was pipping hot and the pepper that I smelled was clearly picked up by my taste buds as well, making for a salty and fiery mixture. Each piece of ingredient had been well tenderized through the cooking process, which I assume is done over a long period of time to get it to this stage, though I must say that the meat off the ribs were my most preferred part. I guess some things never change.

My friend had a much more simplier dish, a similarly richly flavored soup filled with a bunch of greeny leafy vegetables, that looked like a type of lettuce/spinach. Unfortunately, I failed to catch the name of this offering, so this visual is all I can provide at this time.  As I was, he was also given a bowl of rice to go along with the dish.

Sushi Tei – Orchard, SG


Sushi Tei @ Paragon
290 Orchard Road, #05-12/18 Paragon
Singapore 238859
+65 6235 1771

Diversity in the available eating options in Singapore is world renowned. For most, it may conjur up images of the neighborhood coffee shop serving up that sweet spread on toast known as Kaya, the distinct flavors of South Area in the form of a spicy curry and Roti Prata in the Little India neighborhood, or that ever present Hainanese Chicken Rice offered up by a hawker stand in a suburban area. But sushi? It sure doesn’t quite fit into the preconceived set of representative Singaporean food. Despite this, I was surprised to see a fair share of restaurants specializing in Japanese food, though I had never attempted to try it here… until now.

While picking up some items in the Paragon Shopping Centre, I made my way to the top floor knowing there would be some restaurants there, and I was in dire need of satisfying my hunger late in the evening. As with most places, I am am willing to give things a try (and potentially take another “bullet for the team”). Sushi Tei, now in its 14th year of operations, is a Singapore-headquartered chain that has expanded to nine locations in their base country (with two more planned), an outlet in China, ten in Indonesia, one in Thailand, and one in Australia. From all appearances, each outlet is not a cookie-cutter model of the same looking design and layout. The Paragon location that I visited had taken clear influences from modern-style, izakaya in Japan, with its use of open spacing, dimmed lighting, clean lines and use of natural materials to accentuate the atmosphere. I could see how it could be popular with the twenty-something crowd, and it sure was packed with people in this demographic on this night, mostly groups of friends or couples out on dates. Now whether this is the age group that is driving the growth of Japanese cuisine in Singapore, I would have to investigate further to confirm.

As I was dining alone, I was given a spot along the counter facing the open sushi prep area that was in the centre of the room. Towards the back, was the actual kitchen, that was surrounded by banquet seating booths and other table/chair combinations. A large chalkboard was displayed prominently on one wall, outlining the daily specials. The crew in the sushi area was a trio of youths, which did not surprise me as I figured that was the labor they would be using in a place like this. Adorned in clear plastic gloves and visibly cutting the slabs of raw fish with ordinary kitchen knives, I knew that I should not expect much from the sushi. I could see that the bulk of their work was in making those dreaded rolls that everyone in the western world seems to enjoy so much and is what they consider to be sushi. The passing plates of sushi rolling by on the conveyor belt, also did nothing to convince me to give it a try, but alas in the interests of experimentation, I did take a few dishes.

sushitei_katsudo

I must say that I have never seen such thinly cut pieces of salmon on nigiri before – they were almost paper thin and reminded me of the thickness one finds with fugu sashimi. And the flavor of the salmon was so weak, it made me realize just how good the salmon is here in Canada. Just watching the crew go through the paces was amusing in itself. The manner in which they would hold the knives, the angle of the cutting motions they made, etc. it all made for a crystal clear view into the mass market, Japanese cuisine market here in Singapore and the level its at right now. To somehow save face, I ordered off the cooked menu and chose a Katsudon – in the hopes that at least they could get that right and it would have an ample layer of rice so as to help fill my hungry belly.

I suppose its my own fault for wanting to stray off the tried and true path by venturing into a chain-style sushi place. A matter of curiosity and convenience (I was staying nearby) got the better of me, as well as some desire to eat something non-Singaporean after a week into my Southeast Asia trip. Aesthetically, having a seat at Sushi Tei @ Paragon is a refreshing change of pace, and made me wish more Japanese restaurants in western Canada would invest in similar design features, and update their outdated looks. But for the food, I would rate what I ate at Sushi Tei as being around the same level as poor to mid-level sushi joints in BC/Alberta. And that after all, is the most important thing to think about here. Save your Sing Dollars for Sing Food la.

Jumbo Seafood – Dempsey, SG


Jumbo Seafood @ Dempsey
Blk 11 #01-16 Dempsey Road
Singapore 249673
+65 6479 3435

Let me begin this post by asking a question.  Does who you dine with influence the anticipation you may have of a restaurant, the food they serve, etc.?  This could also be asked of your impressions of the experience while it is unfolding, with that person(s) at the table with you.  Taking it a step further, does dining with someone in the “industry”, be it from the kitchen, front of staff, or related business side of restaurants have an effect on how you describe your meal later on?

On this evening, one of the people at my table was a professional business and marketing consultant in the restaurant industry based in Singapore.  I was curious to see how their opinions and comments on the food would affect the others.  It really was sort of like a social experiment, observing the interplay of discussions around the table.  Some of the others knew this person better than others, and it was clear that these personal bonds did have an impact on the rebuttals flying around.  Me?  I just played the role of Switzerland and just enjoyed the evening…

We ordered an assortment of dishes to get a wide range of flavors, and were comfortably seated in the outdoor section of the restaurant.  The place was incredibly busy and getting a free table took some time.  Darkly lit by some pole lights, the space was covered in a frame structure, that would support an automatically deploying canopy – quite the investment, and according to the consultant, conveniently paid for by a corporate sponsor who’s logo was prominently displayed on the outside.  Luckily, but not totally unexpectedly, I was able to observe the unfolding, once a few drops of rain fell from the skies and staff quickly scrambled to start the system.

Apologies for the quality of the images.  Taken with a poorer camera and in incredibly low light without flash, some sharpness was sacrificed.  The Crispy Baby Squid was one of the first to reach our table.  The sauce it was glazed with was an oyster sauce, and the texture combination between the crispy exterior and chewy inside of the squid was interesting, but not overly memorable.

jumbo_deepfried

The Donut with Seafood Paste, was one of the recommended dishes at Jumbo.  Essentially it is deep fried cuttlefish paste fritters, sprinkled with sesame seeds and served with a sweet peanut paste.  Much like the earlier baby squid dish, the mix of crispy and moist was the key here.  I suppose I liked this dish, as it was one of the more filling that we ordered.

Steamed Bamboo Clams with Minced Garlic, that were eaten with a light soy sauce and were a challenge to eat.  Each piece was strongly stuck to the shell and required some effort to cut free.  I thought they were a bit overcooked, contributing to the tougher, rubbery consistency of the meat.

jumbo_scallops2

Scallop Wrapped in Yam Ring, served with a sweet Ngoh Hiang sauce.  Yes, another deep fried dish.  The scallop was tender and plump, though I did not care much for the outer rim made of yam paste.  Perhaps by this time I was tired of the oily, deep fried component.

Amid all the seafood, the vegetables got lost in the mix.  Here, a basic serving of Gai Lan (Chinese Broccoli).

Golden Nest Salad Tiger Prawns with a sweet yogurt sauce, served in a crispy potato nest.  For me, mixing seafood with sweet tastes just never feels completely right.  I suppose I am the same with red meats.

This popular staple dish of Southeast Asia, Mee Goreng, is a mouthful of interesting flavors as aside from the yellow noodles, ingredients such as chili, vegetables, and seafood (in this case) are included.  As stomach filling as it usually is, by the time this rolled around, I was more than full.

But my table partners would not let me leave without sampling the Black Pepper Sri Lankan Crab.  I knew I had to compare this to the version at Long Beach.  The verdict, Jumbo comes in second based on the quality of the crab meat.  The overwhelming peppery sensation was the same though for both.  As special as this dish is supposed to be, I guess I will never be able to fully appreciate it fieriness, as I’d much rather enjoy the crab meat in its more natural tasting form.

The Dempsey location is now the seventh outlet of this seafood restaurant empire, and opened earlier this spring.  The area of Dempsey Hill is an alluring one, with its historical ties to the old army barracks, that have been transformed into modern yet still colonial-looking buildings that house a variety of restaurants and bars.  Driving around this maze though is an adventure, and parking is tight (a tip: park on the back side, where most people don’t really know about, its next to a nice jazz bar that I frequent when I am in town and allows you to keep a bottle with your name on it).  Bestowed with many industry and media accolades over the years, Jumbo is clearly one of the top players in the Singapore seafood scene.  The business consultant at our table had mentioned that the owners are still very hands-on, and one of them is always found at the Dempsey location.  With over twenty years established on their record for serving Singaporeans, its clear that they are still building towards more and more success.  Unfortunately, I probably won’t be one of their repeat customers, as I came away thinking it was not anything spectacular, ordinary in fact.  When the best dish was the Gai Lan, I must say that does not bode well for a seafood specialty restaurant.  I think some others were feeling the same way, but held their breath in front of the food consultant.  To each his own I guess…

IVINS Peranakan Restaurant – Bukit Timah, SG


IVINS Peranakan Restaurant
19/21 Binjai Park

Bukit Timah, Singapore
+65 5468 3060

The centuries long movement of people to the peninsula that forms present-day Singapore and the resulting interplay and mixture of cultures that has occurred is one of the most fascinating elements for a visitor to see in this true city-state, which forms the tiniest nation in this southeastern part of Asia.  As with most historical patterns of migration, the early Chinese who traveled to this region eventually settled down with the local people, in this case the Malays, and inter-married with the women of this culture.  The result is what is known as the Peranakan culture, and this phenomena has also helped transform the local culinary scene, with its exotic melding of the flavors of the Malays with the preparation styles of the Chinese.  If one were to summarize it in a simple statement, it would have to be that it is distinctively seasoned, and hits on all taste buds between sweet and spicy, and is certainly not subdued by any means – how could it be with such a generous use of ingredients such as ginger, chillies, and coconut milk!   Much like many things in Singapore, this mosaic is what makes for such an exciting experience, and makes this part of the world one of the most satisfying for dining out.

The main branch of IVINS Peranakan Restaurant is located on a narrow street in Bukit Timah, with a large open facing window to the road, which also provides for some very minimal parking.  From a North American’s perspective, the exterior looks very much like a strip mall with its bold signage rimming the top of the outer wall, suggesting that comforting home-cooked, family style type of dining establishment you sometimes see in such structures.  The rest of the interior is quite spartan, with spot lighting in the ceiling that helps to brighten the room just right.  The seating is quite open and tables are spaced closely together, which makes for some interesting chances to spy what your neighbors are eating.

The menu is a single paper sheet that is spread out in front of your as a table mat.  It is broken up by ingredient base: Ayam (chicken), Babi (pork), Ikan (fish), Seafood, Sayur (vegetables), as well as other sections that are labeled Other House Delights, Rice, Soup, Local Delights, and Telor (egg).  There is also a good mix of hot and cold desserts.  The dishes themselves are all quite manageable in proportion, so the ability to select several and share among a group is ideal.

We began our dinner with a Bakwan Kepeting, described as minced pork and crab meat balls with bamboo shoots in a clear soup.  The broth was very light and not as salty as I had expected.  The meatballs themselves were well cooked through and had a nice crunchy texture in them, I think it was fine bits of cartilage included with the meat.  Overall, a warm start to our meal.

The Sotong Hitam came next.  This was a small dish of squid that was stir-fried with a black sweet sauce.  A mix of both the squid body and the tentacles were included.  They were a bit tougher and chewy than I would have liked.  As well, it was the only sweeter tasting dish we had this evening.  It did not really interest me however, other than for the contrasting taste to the other dishes.

Garam Assam Fish Head, red snapper fish head with lady’s fingers cooked in a spicy tamarind gravy.  There was not an opportunity to select the level of heat, but believe this came in at about a medium level.  The curry was fairly rich and the fish head had plenty of white fleshy meat on it and around the next area, which could be found by digging deeply into the bowl.  It was served with steamed rice. Very satisfying.

This is the Nonya Chap Chye, stewed mixed vegetables cooked in a soy bean sauce.  It did say it was a medley of vegetables, but I think it was mainly shredded cabbage.  Seasoning was very bland.  I did not enjoy this at all.

Ayam Buah Keluak, this is the signature dish of Peranakan Cuisine. Chicken braised in a thick spicy tamarind gravy with buah keluak nuts.  Very distinctive flavors, and the chunks of chicken breast meat were tender and soft.  The curry was more runny than the one served with the fish head earlier, and probably a tad milder too.  Despite it being a feature dish, it did not blow me away in terms of flavors.

All in all, I suppose I did enjoy my meal here, mainly for the fact that I could get another chance to try Peranakan food, in what was a very popular place.   The highlight of the night for me was the Garam Assam.  I am quickly becoming a big fan of this dish whenever I am in SE Asia.  I am highly interested in exploring other hybrid types of cuisine out there in the world, so if our readers have any suggestions, I would be open to hearing about them!

Thasevi Prata – Jalan Kayu, SGP


Thasevi Food Original Jalan Kayu Prata
237/239 Jalan Kayu
Singapore
+65 6481 1537

The Jalan Kayu area is very well known by locals at THE place for Roti Prata – usually just called Prata by Singaporeans (although some of my friends also swear by the places on Upper Thompson too, especially for the sweeter variants of this dish).  In fact, that’s probably all this area is noteable for as the street itself is nothing special without the main shops that sell this particular food, that originates from the Indian Paratha.  In the morning, it is a staple of the breakfast meal, and here at Thasevi Prata you can see young teenagers grabbing a snack on their way to school, middle-aged men eating before they head to work, and even seniors who have plenty of time on their hands to enjoy a relaxed morning.  Parking is limited to the stalls along the same street, or to a pay parking lot just up the road.  For me on this day, it was a stopover for a quick bite, on the way to wake boarding in the Straits of Johor.

The setup is very simple.  You go inside, place your order, give them your table number that is painted on your table, and wait to have it delivered to your table.  Many of the tables have used cigarette cans, so beware of that if you are adverse to smoke while eating and pick a table more near the centre of the area.  As well, don’t expect much for service, as the folks inside are quite busy and generally not a cheery bunch.  They have a tendency to make mistakes with orders (as they did again on this day) and they’re not so speedy with rectifying problems.  Try not to raise a big stink, as they’ve been known to respond aggressively.

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Food Junction – Singapore


Food Junction
5th Floor, Funan DigitalLife Mall
109 North Bridge Road, Singapore
Tel: +65 6336 8327 (Mall Customer Service)

Whenever I am in Singapore, as I am this week, eating and shopping tend to be my favorite off-time activities.  Where else can you get such an abundance of both, and at such a great level (in terms of quality and price) that is the envy of the world.  Granted, there are some places where this bar does come down a notch or two, but still thinking in terms of what you get in North America for almost the same thing and the large drop off in price found here, you are still getting away with a fantastic deal.  And for anyone that knows me, high tech gadgets and electronic goods are some of my most favorite things, and here in Singapore, they make sure to also have a well stocked food court in the IT-dedicated shopping centres.  What more could you ask for?

The Funan DigitalLife Mall (sometimes referred to as the Funan Centre, or Funan IT Mall) is a popular place for both locals and tourists alike, especially those looking to purchase a new laptop computer.  Frankly, I don’t know how one can differentiate between one store and another that is carrying the same product.  Price negotiation skills are paramount, in order to get the best deal in the house.  And after all that back-and-forth with salespeople, you tend to get hungry.  And after spending a small fortune on a new electronic toy, well perhaps your budget for your post-purchase meal needs to take a hit. No need to fret, as the Food Junction comes to the rescue!

This food court located on the fifth floor of the mall, is quite generic.  By this I mean, each station is not a separate tenant with their own restaurant/brand name.  Rather, the stalls are segregated by type of cuisine, and named as such (eg. Chinese food, Indian food, Korean food, etc.).  As you can see from the image, a simple, understated plate of Hainanese Chicken Rice.  Served with a bowl of steaming chicken stock soup, and a sampling of the dipping sauces one usually requires.  All this for SGD 3.80 (equivalent to 3 Canadian dollars at today’s rate).  Throw in the air conditioning in the seating area, and the fellows around who are quickly cleaning up tables and clearing away trays, and it makes the amount I paid feel even better.

For this quantity and cost, you are getting what you pay for.  It comes out quick, slapped down on your cafeteria plate by some young kids behind the counter.  For the dipping sauces, you pour what you want from the bottles into a small dish, and taking everything away on your tray to an available table on the floor.  The slices of chicken breast meat are thin, with the gelatinous skin on top very limited.  The rice was surprisingly good though, very fragrant and not over/under cooked.  The accompanying bowl of soup was very pedestrian.  But when you think about how much I paid for it, and the equivalent of what I could have gotten at say McDonald’s (yes, located down on the main floor of this mall), I’d say I made out well with a conservative sized meal that did put a dent into my hunger, after an hour of so of patrolling all the floors in this building looking at expensive toys.

Food Republic – SG and Kuala Lumpur, MY


Food Republic
@ Wisma Atria, 4th Floor                  @ The Pavilion, 1st Floor
435 Orchard Road                             168 Jalan Bukit Bintang
Singapore                                         Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Tel: +65 6235 8177                         Tel: +603 2118 8833

As interesting and refreshing a change that food courts in Asian shopping complexes are in the lower mainland, they still pale in comparison to the variety and options that exist in lands across the Pacific. As I’ve just found out that I need to travel again to Southeast Asia next month (the second time in six months), I thought I’d get into the right frame of mind as I prepare to hit the city state of Singapore and neighboring Malaysia, both of which have a diverse range of food offerings that I am looking forward to exploring again. The following is a recollection of some simple meals that I had this past spring in the Food Republic food courts, that are located in two of the largest shopping complexes in both countries.

While sweating in the humid weather of Singapore, despite it being the later evening, my friend and I were looking for a quick meal after a busy day of shopping. We settled on the Wisma Atria shopping centre, which houses the Food Republic food court on its top floor, as it was close to the Orchard MRT station that he was going to use to return home. The Food Republic is a mix of about ten hawker-style stalls, including some pushcarts, that sell an assortment of Singaporean/Chinese/Malaysian dishes. Seating is arranged throughout the space, but when it is busy, you will have a long wait in trying to get an empty seat. Each mini restaurant operates as a stand alone enterprise, so you pay at each stall for your choices – no messy ticket system here as you might find in similar open concept food courts.

After doing a few laps scouting out the edible delights, as well as trying to find an empty table to save, I finally settled on some hand cut noodles paired with some pan fried dumplings. It was the show that grabbed my attention, as I spotted the man behind a panel of glass in his small booth, rythmically hacking off slivers with a steel blade from a large brick of dough held in his other hand, shooting them directly into a massive wok filled with hot water to cook them. Nearby, a woman was busy prepping the bowls with a hearty chicken-based soup and assorted toppings – a crunchy and salty flavored mound of little dried fish was my favorite! The dumplings were made of a slightly thicker wrap, making for a very crispy but chewy covering, though the ball of meat inside was perhaps a little less flavorful than I would have hoped. I assumed these were not being freshly made in the back and were of the restaurant supply, frozen variety.

My Singaporean host finished off his meal by saying he was getting a “dessert”. He tried describing it to me as a vegetable and fruit concoction making it a unique combination of flavors in one single bowl. Now I love the combination of peanuts and sweet sauce, so upon first glance, it looked really appealing. I just had it in the back of my mind though, that there was no way it was a dessert. I think my friend was just trying to trick me into having another unique dish called Rojak, while we were hanging out together that night. I’m not sure that I fully enjoyed this dish, as the mix of ingredients seemed a bit odd to me even for a salad. Perhaps its an acquired taste, so I am open to having it again on my upcoming trip.

The same week that I was in Singapore, I spent time in Kuala Lumpur as well – a short 45 minute plane ride away. My accommodations were located directly across the street from the relatively still brand new, shopping complex known as The Pavilion. This was indeed a high end mall, filled with all of the top brands you could imagine, as well as a massive food court that occupied most of the first floor of the building. Here, the Singaporean Food Republic conglomerate had created another food carnival for busy shoppers (locals and tourists alike) much to my delight.

There were a lot more choices at this Pavilion edition though, simply due to greater available floor space. A few times for lunch, I stopped by to grab an easy meal again, as the more proper restaurants in the complex were a little out of my daily budget range, and when I didn’t have much time to explore further geographically from where I was for work purposes. I had to sample another basic soup noodle dish, which I did, but the noodles in this case were of a more skinnier variety.  It was what it was, simple in flavor with its thin broth for a low price.

On another occasion, I had it in my mind that I needed to sample some satay while I was in Malaysia. The basic plate of three skewers (your choice of beef or chicken) came with a generous portion of fried rice, and a fried egg. As this was going to be nowhere enough for my hungry appetite on this day, I ordered another batch. I found it interesting that much like places in Vancouver that serve satay, they require you to order a certain number when placing an order, a minimum of five in most cases.

There were other food and restaurant tenants not associated with the Food Republic as well, sharing the same area. My Malaysian friends suggested we do a small stop at Madam Kwan’s. Here we had a Cendol dessert, essentially made up of a scoop of shaved ice that is mixed with these green colored noodles and sweetened with coconut milk and sugar. One of my hosts told me a story of how he had this virtually every day as a child when he came home from school, as he’d get a free bowl of it from an Indian street vendor in his neighborhood who would start giving it away as the ice started to melt faster than he could maintain it towards the end of each day. He also remarked that those making it on the streets are declining in number.

Without a doubt, there are a lot of excellent and very reasonably priced restaurants offering the best of cuisine found in Singapore in Malaysia – some of which I’ve had the pleasure of dining in and could potentially write about in the future here on Foodosophy. But for some reason, I am drawn to the street food vendors risking my well being in the process, as well as the more comfortable airconditioned and low priced environments that food courts have to offer. As I noted at the beginning, these food courts are amazing – with the range and quality of food found in these places easily beating those in many ethnic restaurants back home in Canada, and for a fraction of the price.  I can’t wait to get back!