Rojak: Asian Fruit Salad with a KL Twist

I’m always game for an unusual eating experience, so when my Makan Kaki Gayle Leong of Ice Ke Lim Specialty Asian Gelato invited me to try their rojak ice cream experiment, I was ready with a big spoon and an even bigger appetite. Made in collaboration with Lim Bo Fresh Fruits Rojak, a scoop of their Mean Vanilla Bean gelato was drizzled with mild rojak sauce and topped with crushed peanuts and crispy you tiao (deep fried dough fritters).

The combination sounded weird, but turned out to be quite wonderful. So wonderful that I decided to return to the Joo Chiat Place rojak stall for a taste of their unique Malaysian-style fruit rojak. I wanted to find out just who Lim Bo is and what sets his rojak apart from our local version. I discovered that while the gentleman who prepared my rojak is the owner of the Joo Chiat stall, but he’s not Lim Bo (Uncle Lim in Chinese). Leong Gwo Wei is the Singaporean disciple of Malaysian Uncle Lim and theirs is a cross-border story that takes us from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, by way of Perak and Penang, and back again.

 

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Fiery-Hot Old School Wanton Mee

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If you think spice is nice and are looking for dishes that really turn up the heat, then this wanton mee stall is for you. Fellow hot head and foodie friend Chef Shen Tan of OG Lemak recommended I try the Eunos branch of a Dunman Food Centre stall that’s famous for serving up some of the spiciest noodles in Singapore. I gamely placed my asbestos taste buds at the mercy of Mr Sam Ng, whose family owns the two Dunman Char Siew Wan Ton Mee outlets. He’s in charge of the Eunos branch, which opened in March of 2019.

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Shrimply Addictive – Crispy & Fluffy Prawn Vadai

The connection between food and nostalgia is a powerful one. With hawker stalls closing due to the pandemic and activities we previously took for granted no longer possible, more than ever before do we crave simple comforts we remember from better days. Take the simple joy of exploring a night market. From the sprawling Geylang Serai Hari Raya pasar malam to the kind you find in the heartland at the foot of your HDB block, it’ been a long time since we’ve been able to enjoy the riot of sights and sounds, goods for sale and best of all, naughty foods loaded with salt, sugar, fat and carbs.

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If you’re looking to rekindle the thrill of biting into a hot, fresh pasar malam snack, wander no more – one of Singapore’s most popular prawn vadai experts has set up shop in the East. Those familiar with pasar malam stalwarts Mr Vadai will tell you how addictive their signature deep-fried snack is. They’ll also tell you it was a game of chance hunting down which night market the vadai stall would pop up at. Those days of playing hide and seek are over, now that Mr Vadai has three brick-and-mortar locations you can visit.

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Nourishing, palate-cleansing Teochew fish porridge

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After weeks of excessive eating, my stomach was protesting. I have to admit I was ready to throw in the fork, spoon and chopsticks. Imagine the relief to hear from my Makan Kaki, Chef Heman Tan of Moonbow at Dempsey, who suggested I reset my body with something pristine and nourishing. As a chef of Modern European cuisine, this stall in Bukit Timah Food Centre is his first stop when he’s in need of a respite from the rich foods he usually whips up in his restaurant. So in times of overindulgence, pay penance at Quan Xiang Fish Porridge with a bowl of their palate-cleansing Teochew-style signature.

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Under the stall’s name, a menu board with the words “lao zi hao” (老字号) printed in large Chinese characters greets you. Roughly translated to “renowned old brand or established enterprise”, both are true for Quan Xiang, a proudly Teochew family business that had its beginnings in 1966 as a roadside pushcart. Stall owner Mr Loh Chee Song told me that his father first began selling his signature fish porridge at the now-defunct Beauty World Market, until frequent fires encouraged the move to their current location in Bukit Timah Food Centre in 1976.

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The business, along with their closely-guarded family recipe, was passed down to Mr Loh in 1999 and for over two decades, he has been perfecting his father’s legacy. When it comes to traditional Teochew-style fish porridge, the emphasis is on retaining the fresh taste of fish, without any overt seasonings or extra ingredients to sully its purity. Unlike other types of Asian fish soup or porridge, no tofu, tomato, seaweed or lard is added. It needs to be very clean and unadulterated, so as to let the main ingredient shine. In Quan Xiang’s case, they use either batang (Spanish mackerel) or the less common wild red garoupa. The freshest they can find.

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New Branch for Chicken Wings PM Famously Queued For

img_8041For a dependably indulgent chicken wing, Eng Kee Chicken Wings is the one many flock to. Even our Prime Minister once famously stood in line for half an hour to get his chicken wing fix at the Redhill branch back in 2014. Indeed, the taste of Eng Kee chicken wings is as fresh and delicious as it was when I first started having supper at their original Commonwealth stall twenty years ago. And joy of joys, they now have a new branch serving up the same famous wings in West Coast Drive.

img_8047Opened just last year, the family behind the famed wings has taken over management of an entire kopitiam at Block 505. With a daily best of three thousand chicken wings sold across all three branches, I needed to check if things were up to scratch at the newest Eng Kee branch. My concerns might have been premature, because owner Mr Lim informed me that their seasonings are “all standardised” and the wings (imported from Brazil) are marinated overnight at Commonwealth before being distributed to all three branches. For the perfect signature product, they even have one staff member whose sole purpose is to choose only frozen chicken wings of similar size to ensure an even cook.

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For the next six hours or so, the chosen wings luxuriate in a marinade of oyster sauce, light soy sauce, salt, white pepper and other “secret seasonings”. The next day, they get a vigorous massage so that the marinade melds into every nook and cranny.

The next step is preparing a simple, light batter of rice flour and water, in which the marinated wings get a dip, before their final destination – a wok full of sizzling-hot vegetable oil. For wings that are juicy on the inside, yet crispy on the outside, Mr Lim said two factors need to be well-controlled: temperature and time.

How hot the oil gets is crucial. Too much heat and the wings’ exterior burns but interior remains raw. Too little heat and the wings absorb too much oil, resulting in unappetizingly greasy chicken. Less experienced staff might use a thermometer to monitor the temperature of the oil, but his more experienced staff need only eyeball the wok to know.

How long the wings are fried for is also important – seven to eight minutes is the optimum cook time in their boiling bath of oil, which is changed often so it doesn’t darken or turn stale. Mr Lim insists that the wings need to be wok-fried by hand, not in an automated fryer, because they require constant watching and turning for that coveted even, golden colour.

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Their adherence to tradition activated a powerful nostalgia in me. These were the kind of wings you remember eating as child, the kind mum might fry up for a special occasion like a birthday or class party. Eng Kee’s fried chicken wings smelt enticingly savoury and were becomingly burnished, with a light crusting over tender, juicy meat. A gentle umami had penetrated right down to the bone and the light flavour of its oyster and soya sauce marinade permeated the chicken.

img_1110I especially appreciate a chicken wing for the different textures you get – the winglet portion is smooth and succulent, the drumlet portion is slightly drier yet yields a meatier bite, while the wing tip is all about the texture of crispy-fried chicken skin. Surprisingly, the deep-fried wings were not too oily, especially when eaten hot. Chilli sauce was provided for a sweet and not-too-spicy contrast to the wings, but I didn’t need it. The decadent dish was good enough on its own. I easily polished off four wings in one sitting.

img_8049Eng Kee’s secret to success was evident. It’s all about consistency, keeping to tradition and preserving the original taste of the wings without skimping on quality or ingredients. “No shortcuts,” Mr Lim said firmly. That, and maintaining their low prices, which have remained unchanged for years. “Our wings are still $1.30, noodles only eighty cents. Very affordable.”

img_8051The signature dish of Eng Kee has always been fried chicken wings, but they’ve also supplemented their menu to include fried noodles ($0.80), along with extra ingredients like ngoh hiang ($1.10), fishcake ($0.50) and vegetables ($0.50). Kind of like econ breakfast beehoon, except served through lunch and dinner.

For all these reasons, Eng Kee has always enjoyed brisk business, with generations of loyal customers who continue returning for their favourite chicken wings, in spite of the long lines. For now though, the new West Coast outlet appears to be the best bet for a queue-free experience. But to cut any wait time, Mr Lim left me with this parting hack: get online and order your wings for pickup or free island-wide delivery!

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  • TASTE:
    Denise ate at the Eng Kee Chicken Wings branch located at
    Block 505 West Coast Drive, Singapore 120505. It’s open Tuesdays to Sundays, 8am to 2pm and 4pm to 8pm. Closed on Mondays.

Batman Penyet, Oxtail Soup & Other Super Surabaya Specialities

img_7352At its previous location, this stall was affectionately nicknamed Batman Ayam Penyet by regular customers, but Impian Wahyu serves up so much more than just their popular Indonesian-style smashed chicken. Intrigued by the superhero moniker and promises of killer sambal and mouthwatering soup, I followed the recommendation of my Makan Kaki, The Fabulous Baker Boy Juwanda Hassim, and paid the stall a visit at its current location in Kelantan Road.

There, I was greeted by a vision in Batman logos. From his songkok, to his crisp shirt, to even his facemask, Abang Batman was fully adorned with the familiar stylized design, as was his storefront and signage. He later explained that he earned his nickname because he grew up watching Batman on TV and before he got married, he loved dressing all in black, just like his favourite superhero.

The affable owners of Impian Wahyu (which means Wahyu’s Dream and is named for Abang Batman’s wife Madam Wahyu Ning) has been in the food business for over twenty years. Regulars might recall their previous location along Jalan Besar, where they were for almost eight years. They’ve since relocated just a stone’s throw away, to this cosy corner of Kelantan Road, in a kopitiam surrounded by blocks of HDB flats.

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Almost every sign at Impian Wahyu is emblazoned with whimsical statements that tell their story, like “diiringi dengan taburan ayat-ayat cinta”, an Indonesian movie reference that also means “accompanied by a scattering of love verses”. I assumed that main chef Madam Wahyu Ning wants customers to know that she cooks everything on their extensive menu with love, so I hurried to put this to the taste test.

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Good Fishball Mee Made by Indian Hawker!

I’m always on the hunt for a satisfying bowl of fishball noodles, especially if it includes quality, handmade her giao (fish dumplings), which are notoriously hard to find. Call it destiny, but it was the song Sunny by Boney M that brought me to this stall. For months, I had been playing the requests of a couple who would text me on occasion from their workplace. I was delighted to discover that they actually made and sold my favourite hawker food for a living. I was doubly delighted to realise that their stall was already on my “to-try” list.

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Excellent taste in music and food aside, the owners of Lina Fishball Noodle had already created quite an online stir because these hawkers of traditional Chinese noodles are young, attractive and surprise-surprise, not Chinese. Meet newly-weds May & Jeevan Ananthan – she’s in charge of business development and makes a mean fishball, he’s in charge of operations and the main bulk of cooking.  But what does a young Indian man know about making bak chor mee and fishball noodles? Indeed, 30-year-old Jeevan Ananthan, who looks more at home in a gym or the corporate world of Trading and Investments (his previous job), is the last person you’d expect to see in a Toa Payoh kopitiam, putting together your order of bak chor mee. In the words of his equally youthful wife, May Leena (the stall is named for her, using the Mandarin version of her middle name) Krishnan, their start really wasn’t easy and they had to overcome a lot of odds to get where they are today.

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Despite having zero F&B experience, the couple took the plunge and opened a stall selling their favourite hawker food, so they could spend more time together. And just like that, Lina Fishball Noodle was born. When they first started, they hired someone with experience to pass on some basic culinary skills, but after the first couple of weeks, May and Jeevan were on their own. For everything else they didn’t know, they taught themselves from internet videos and their own kitchen experiments. Their youthful gamble seems to have paid off and after almost two years and one move (just down the road from their original stall), Lina Fishball Noodle has gained a loyal and regular customer base, along with the expected gawkers, still surprised by the sight of Jeevan manning the stall.

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May initially leveraged on that surprise factor and a video she posted on Instagram of Jeevan cooking his signature noodles went viral. Her digital marketing background in full play, May hashtagged the video #TheIndianFishballMeeExperience and with the subsequent online buzz came the media attention. It was exactly what they needed to give their business a boost. But what about naysayers who think the couple are just getting by on their good looks and internet fame? May’s immediate reply was, “Come and try.” Jeevan added, “We’ve heard that before, but look, our food does the talking, not us. Just come, try and see if you want to come back or not.”

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And that is exactly what I did…

For the full story, to download the podcast and to watch the video, click the links below:

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Irene Ang Recommends Shiok Old-School Laksa

HEAR:
Click to listen/ download podcast of this week’s spicy, lemak episode!

SEE:

70d24b6d-95ac-47ea-94a5-6d4d41b944d6This week, our Makan Kaki, Fly Entertainment CEO and owner of Bar NKD, Fry Bistro & Soi Candy Thai Noodle and Seafood Bar, Irene Ang returns with a recommendation I really had to persuade her to share. This is her (until now) secret, go-to place for one of her favourite local dishes, LAKSA!

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Due to the recurring F&B COVID-19 restrictions, when she’s not ordering in, she’s been making it a point to explore the Ang Mo Kio area near where she lives to support hawkers as much as possible. She joked that she was reluctant to reveal her Laksa place because she knows people will complain that they’ll have to queue for longer than before once word gets out! Fortunately for us, I managed to twist her arm and she finally shared that she has to visit this humble stall at Mayflower Food Centre at least once a week for her spicy, lemak fix. It’s a stall that’s been there for a long time and according to Irene, is usually run by an old uncle who only accepts standard orders for his coveted Laksa, because the queues are usually long.

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Of course, I had to go check it out for myself and after doing a little research because Irene could only tell me the location of the stall, but not its name, I discovered that Quan Xing Mei Shi is the only stall at Mayflower Food Centre that sells Laksa. For some reason, it was closed the 2 times I paid it a visit – both times on a weekday morning at 9am, right smack in the middle of their alleged opening hours. Persevering, I was third time lucky. At the stall were an affable man and woman, but no sign of the “old uncle” Irene mentioned. Turns out, the younger gentleman is the son and he was the one who served me. I quickly dapao’d two portions to go (both for me, just in case – I’d worked so hard for my Laksa!).

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Thoughtfully packed separately in bags (I paid extra for the reusable bowls in these photos) – the blanched noodles, beansprouts, sliced fish cake, a dollop of chilli paste and a generous scoop of laksa leaves went into one bag, whilst the hot gravy, thick-cut taupok (tofu puffs) and cockles went into the other. I would have preferred that the cockles were packed with the noodles instead to prevent overcooking, but they were so generous with the little shellfish (I counted at least 12), I really couldn’t complain. At least they were sweet and fresh and didn’t end up rubbery!

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As Irene was telling me, the stall doesn’t usually accept any special orders – you take your Laksa as they make it – absolutely no permutations, except you can choose between yellow noodles or thick bee hoon (chu mi fen). Even without the old man there, I didn’t dare push my luck with his son and obediently went with their standard, which was a good portion. Irene loves that one can have a whole bowl of this Laksa and not feel too full or jelak.

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