National Day Special: Top Local Eats (Rojak)

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We complete our national day series on the top local eats as voted by you, with ROJAK! Of all the dishes in the world that can be classified as “ugly delicious”, rojak comes pretty close to the top of the list.

In Singapore, Chinese rojak consists of cut fruit, vegetables and fried dough sticks obfuscated by a sticky dark sauce dusted with crushed peanuts. Malay rojak usually has the addition of tempeh (fermented soybean cakes) and tauhu goreng (fried firm tofu), whilst Indian rojak is best described as a deep-fried smorgasboard of ingredients, from prawn fritters to potatoes, dressed or dipped in a spicy-sweet sauce.

Rojak, in all its various forms, may not be the most visually appealing of dishes, but looks aren’t everything when taste and texture more than make up for it. Perhaps more importantly, rojak has also gone beyond the menu to mean something greater.

Symbolically, rojak reflects the Singaporean culture and identity – a little bit of everything thrown together with a pleasing result. In colloquial Malay, rojak also means “mixed”. No wonder then, that Gold 905 listeners voted the dish as one of the top five local eats that best represents Singapore.

Of all the recommendations we received, these two West side rojak stalls prevailed – one serving Chinese style and the other serving Indian style.

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National Day Special: Top Local Eats (Hokkien Mee)

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Hello Makan Kakis! Our celebration of the top local eats (as voted by Gold 905 listeners) continues with that quinessential South-China noodle dish, Fried Hokkien Prawn Mee. A rich stock made from prawns and pork is key for the making of a great plate of Hokkien Mee, wok-fried with a mix of seafood, meat, yellow and rice noodles, with chilli sauce and calamansi lime on the side. Personal preferences run the gamut – some prefer a wetter consistency, some expect lots of wok hei (breath of the wok), some think pork belly is essential. But everything pivots around that delicious saucy stew the noodles are sautéed in.

While there are several South-east Asian versions, this variety has its roots firmly in China’s Fujian (Hokkien) cuisine, but reached its evolutionary peak in Singapore, thanks to the culinary resourcefulness of early settlers. Before it got its current name, Hokkien Mee was known as Rochor Mee, for the stretch of road where the dish was first created and sold by Chinese immigrants from the Fujian province.

One origin story mentions Chinese sailors who congregated along Rochor Road and thriftly used excess noodles from factories in the area to create hokkien mee using flavours from home. Though this romantic historical account can’t be verified, most won’t dispute that Rochor Road was synonymous with the early days of hokkien mee. Such noodle stalls are now found all across the island, though only a few really stand out. Thanks to recommendations from Gold 905 listeners, we checked out two popular stalls. One brought the fat, one brought the fire, but both absolutely brought the flavour.

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National Day Special: Top Local Eats (Chilli Crab)

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In our recent poll for the National Day series, Gold 905 listeners voted chilli crab as the third most popular dish, just behind chicken rice and laksa. An obvious choice, perhaps, but this is one dish we can proudly say was created in Singapore and as island-dwellers, our tables never go too long without the succulent, spicy seafood treat of mud crabs wok-fried in a piquant, savoury-sweet gravy, served with bread or buns on the side for maximum sauce-absorbing purposes. This week, we feature 2 fantastic and very different styles of Chilli Crab.

1. ROLAND RESTAURANT

Welcome to the birthplace of Chilli Crab. Or as our photographer put it, “The OG Chiili Crab”. Roland Restaurant began life in the mid-fifties by the Kallang River as a humble seafood stall, with just few wooden tables, stools and kerosene lamps. Run by husband-and-wife team Cher Yam Tian and Lim Choon Ngee, business began booming with Madam Cher’s signature creation of crabs stir-fried in a combination of tomato and chilli sauces. The stall evolved to a restaurant initially called Palm Beach along Upper Changi Road and in 1985, their son Roland took over the family business. The eponymously named restaurant has made Marine Parade home ever since.

The chill crab served at Roland Restaurant is still made according to inventor Madam Cher’s recipe and she even makes an appearance now and again in the kitchen (usually when the camera crews come knocking). So if you’re hankering after taste of those good old Bedok Beach days, you know where to find it. Long-time customers still return to ask for this off-menu item. According to Roland, his mother’s original recipe was sweeter, with more of a tomato ketchup flavour and always served with a side of crusty local-style French loaf.

However, their signature on-menu chilli crab has gone through some minor tweaks. “Moving with the times. We always listen to customer feedback,” explained the affable Roland. These days, the sweet tomato ketchup has been dialled down, the chilli paste ramped up for kick and egg has been added for extra texture. The French loaf is also gone, having made way for the now requisite mantou (Chinese wheat flour buns).

In truth, I’m not really a fan of chilli crab, which is usually too heavy on tomato ketchup for me. But a couple of friends, determined to change my mind, dragged me to Roland Restaurant more than a decade ago and made a convert out of me. Their chilli crab is all about a better balance of flavours. The first thing I noticed was the aroma. The thick sauce smelt of the sea – a little bit funky, deeply earthy and savoury. “This is what the younger generation prefers. We try to keep all the flavours very natural, yet true to my mother’s recipe,” Roland pointed out. Indeed, their gravy wasn’t excessively ketchupy or sugary and its fiery chilli heat tickled the back of my throat in the most stimulating way.

Brininess, spiciness, a touch of tang and a hint of sweetness all worked harmoniously in the gravy, expertly thickened by threads of egg white. Its deep, rich colour, so unlike other neon orange sauces I’ve seen, told me there was more culinary magic going on than met the eye. Even after sitting on the table for a good thirty minutes, the dish stayed hot and the sauce did not turn into a gelatinous goop. I appreciated their judicious use of cornstarch, testament to how natural they try to keep the recipe.

To truly enjoy chilli crab, mantou is a must for conveying gravy to mouth. At Roland, you can order the buns either steamed or deep-fried. But chilli crab is already such an indulgent feast, you might as well go all the way with the deep-fried variety, for added taste and textural dimensions. Those buns ($2.40 for four) were dainty and pale, but quite the opposite flavour-wise. The thin, fried crust of the bun was like a crispy candy shell that shattered on contact with teeth, melting away to reveal a soft, fluffy centre. Dipped into chilli crab sauce, the sweet buns drank up the savoury, spicy elixir and released a lovely milkiness that made a wonderfully balanced combination.

As for the crab itself, full marks on freshness, flavour and size. Roland Restaurant usually serves a mix of Sri Lankan crabs and mud crabs, depending on the season – mine were Sri Lankan and perfectly cooked. The naturally sweet crustaceans had a kissed-by-the-wok smokiness, with juicy yet firm pincers, all lovingly bathed in the excellent sauce.

Best of all, the price. They have a current promotion – $78 for two crabs. The waiter warned us they’d be smaller, but on arrival, they were surprisingly substantial and very meaty. “When you do a promotion, customers must not feel like they’ve been cheated. I told my chefs, each serving of two crabs must weigh 1kg or more, then it’s worth it,” said Roland. I couldn’t agree more. At little over 500g per crab, my serving was ample, delicious and great value for money.

There’s always something quite ceremonial and special about sharing a meal of chilli crabs, especially at a stalwart like Roland Restaurant, which calls to mind classic Chinese banqueting halls and childhood family feasts. Eating chilli crabs is such a sensuous experience – you have to be prepared to get hands-on messy, cracking through shells, sucking out hidden morsels from nooks and crannies, sopping up pools of gravy.

By the time I was done, there was probably as much sauce on me as there had been on the crabs. Thank God for piles of napkins and those little finger bowls of calamansi lime tea. Or if you prefer, you can ask for disposable plastic gloves. But where’s the fun in that? It can be such an investment of time and effort, but Roland Restaurant’s chilli crabs are definitely worth getting your hands (and everything else) deliciously dirty for.

TASTE:
Located at Block 89, Marine Parade Central, # 06-750 Singapore 440089.
Opening hours daily from 11.30am to 2.30pm for lunch and 6 to 10.30pm for dinner.
Call 6440 8205 for reservations or to order takeaway.

2. WOK IN BURGER

For an updated version of chilli crab, American fast food meets local zichar in Wok In Burger’s decadent, deep-fried softshell crab burger with chilli crab sauce and fries. The resturant-within-a-restaurant concept shares the same space as sister eatery Keng Eng Kee (KEK), which has a Michelin plate for its famed zichar dishes, including traditional chilli crab. The brainchild of KEK’s third generation chef Wayne Liew, the chilli softshell crab burger is just one of several zichar dishes presented in burger form at nineteen-month-old Wok In Burger, using the same traditional cooking techniques and flavours found at (almost) fifty-year-old KEK.

Before you eschew this as another hipster food fad, the concept works. Close your eyes and you can imagine it really is traditional chilli crab you’re eating (all the elements are there – crab, sauce, bun), albeit crispier and sans tooth-breaking shells. Served piping hot in an on-brand mini-wok, an entire softshell crab was lightly battered and fried till crisp, then sandwiched between lightly toasted, Planta-smeared sesame seed buns, along with lettuce leaf, shredded cabbage and a slice of tomato. The chilli crab sauce was served warm, in a little container on the side – a touch I appreciated, because who wants cold, soggy deep-fried crab?

They say the sauce can make or break the dish, so that was the first thing I tried before even drizzling it on the burger. My mouth was immediately invaded by the sweetness of the glossy sauce, which had a viscous consistency. With generous ribbons of egg white and flecks of chilli giving off a gentle heat, the sauce was like a high-octane ketchup. Apparently, this is the same chilli crab sauce they use in their zichar kitchen, but I found it too sweet for my liking. However, once I combined it with the softshell crab burger, it started to make perfect sense.

Naturally briny and juicy, the softshell crab was tasty on its own and its light batter was also very well-seasoned. The combined saltiness of the crispy crustacean held up marvellously to the sweetly spicy sauce. The acidity in the sauce also lightened the fatty richness of the deep fried crab, which itself was a study in textures. There was crunch from its batter, snap to its soft shell exterior and tender bite to its firm, moist meat. The burger buns functioned in much the same way traditional mantou do – for maximum surface area to soak up sauce and crab juices. 

Be prepared to get very, very messy. There is absolutely no elegant way of eating a chilli crab burger drenched in sauce, so my advice is to control how much you pour on. And definitely save some for dipping their gloriously crispy fries in. Their deep-fried fingers of potato had an especially salty, crunchy coating, with lots of little jagged edges for the sweet sauce to cling to. Just like with the burger, it was all about that perfect balance between textures and salty-sweet flavours. Surprisingly, both the fries and softshell crab retained their crispness, twenty minutes into their saucy bath, that little pot of eggy gravy holding everything together in its syrupy hug. I must stress, however, that the burger meal is best eaten fresh and hot on the spot. It won’t hold up to a steamy, soggy delivery journey.

It’s been said, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, but I’m glad Chef Wayne didn’t get the memo. Wok In Burger’s chilli soft shell crab burger is a laudable attempt to update a time-honoured zichar classic. This is one extremely filling, indulgent zichar-burger hybrid that’s worth dining-in for and at just $15.80, you can enjoy a chilli crab experience at a fraction of the usual price. Also order traditional chilli crab from KEK, for the best of both worlds. Just remember to bring lots of tissues and wet wipes!

TASTE:
Located at 124 Bukit Merah Lane 1, #01-136, Singapore 150124.
Opening hours daily from
11:30am to 2:30pm for lunch, 5pm to 10pm for dinner.
Call 6272 1038
or order via Oddle.
Second outlet located at
JCube #02-08.

 

National Day Special: Top Local Eats (Laksa)

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When it comes to where the best laksa can be found, foodie feuds and fierce debates abound – everybody has their own opinion. So when Gold 905 listeners voted for a National Day series featuring Singapore’s best local dishes, laksa came in a solid second with several favourites coming to the fore.

To be clear, we’re referring to laksa lemak – noodles in a coconut-based curry soup and often served in proud Peranakan homes. Recipes may vary from kitchen to kitchen, but most agree that the spice paste, or rempah, has to have the right balance of herbs, spices and seasoning (my mother’s laksa lemak recipe has 15 ingredients for the rempah alone!), along with good quality coconut milk, hae bee (dried baby shrimp) and seafood stock (fish or prawn), to make a rich, tasty curry soup.

Tau pok (fried beancurd puffs), fishcake, cockles and beansprouts have also become standard ingredients, along with thick bee hoon (rice vermicelli) and a sambal (chilli paste) as a condiment on the side. But perhaps the most important ingredient, known for its distinctive aroma and flavour, is daun kesum. The herb is also known as laksa leaf for good reason.

Over the years, different hawkers found fame with their own special version of laksa lemak. So whether you prefer your laksa without hum (cockles), or a gravy that’s thick and creamy, or noodles eaten with a spoon instead of chopsticks, here are three places recommended by Gold 905 listeners that we think are noteworthy:

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National Day Special: Top Local Eats (Chicken Rice)

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Hello Makan Kakis! Welcome to the first installment of our National Day special, featuring the 5 top local eats (worthy of “national dish” status), as voted by our Gold 905 listeners. The clear favourite, coming in head, shoulders and tail feathers above the rest, was chicken rice. Unsurprising, since nobody can resist tender chicken and toothsome rice, all bathed in mouth-watering aromatics. Add condiments of chilli sauce and thick, sticky-sweet black soya sauce, sliced cucumbers and a bowl of soup, chicken rice is a complete, affordable meal that truly reflects our country’s culinary history and development.

Initially brought to Singapore in the late 1800s by early Hainanese immigrants from China, chicken rice has evolved to suit local palates. Cantonese influences have crept into its preparation, from the tangy red chilli dipping sauce, to the traditional way of poaching whole chickens, then plunging them into cold water for that distinctive smooth, tender meat and gelatinous skin. The poaching liquid is also used to cook the fragrant and flavourful oil-coated rice, which some insist is the most important element of the entire dish.

When Gold 905 listeners were asked where they like to go for their favourite chicken rice fix, a few popular players emerged, of course – famous names like Tian Tian, Boon Tong Kee and Wee Nam Kee, as well as stalwarts like Yet Con and Chin Chin. Honestly though, discussions about where to find the best of this beloved national dish won’t reach any satisfactory conclusions. It’s impossible to find the “best”, simply because every self-respecting Singaporean has their own preference when it comes to the fragrance, flavours and textures of chicken rice. That said, here are a few we think are delicious for different reasons.

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Mouth-watering, Tongue-numbing Sichuan & Taiwan Delights

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Chef Anthony Yeoh of Summer Hill French Bistro at Sunset Way is back to recommend a place he’s been going to for his late-night supper fix. It’s a restaurant called Formosa Delights and they specialize in Taiwanese & Sichuan Cuisine, which means lots of Mala dishes, so this is a place to try if you like your meals spicy and literally tongue-numbing! They do lots of quick and tasty rice or  hand-made noodle sets and even if your tolerance for spice is low, there are other yummy dishes you can enjoy.

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Healthy, Delicious Hot Pot with no MSG!

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SEE:Our foodie friend Chef Shen Tan of private dining series Ownself Make Chef is back with an excellent recommendation for lovers of hotpot, or steamboat! She’s observed that with the Covid-19 situation, hot pot restaurants have been quite badly affected so she decided to show her support. After having had her first taste, a few months ago, of the delights Long Qing has to offer, she ordered some in for delivery. She was very impressed with their broths because they actually don’t use any MSG and you can actually taste all the fresh, quality ingredients. Their broths taste very clean and are very flavorful – there’s so much umami in there and you can tell it’s naturally built-in, without any artificial stuff. Having been to Long Qing many times myself,  I have to agree.  I love things spicy, so my favorite is their spicy & numbing Mala broth (their wild mushroom & tomato broths are great too).

For Chef Shen, she thinks the spicy prawn broth is amazing – full of prawny, briny goodness, as you can see in the picture above. Long Qing delivery has several sets to choose from, and not being able to decide, she went for 2 different sets, with enough food to feed 4, when there were only 2 of them eating at home! I had the same problem – too many yummy choices, so I ended up with more than I could finish – but that’s a happy problem (scroll down for what I had delivered).

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Om Sweet Om! Fusion Food & Chill Vibes

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Our Makan Kakis Farah & Claudinho of home-based Brazilian Food business Claudinho’s Kitchen are back to share with us their go-to place for an easy-breezy evening out. This is a really relaxed and casual sanctuary that offers up respite in the heart of bustling Haji Lane. Operating out of a cosy 2-storey shophouse, Going Om is a bohemian cafe/ bar that exudes good vibes & serves good food. Upstairs is a yoga space (yes, classes are available), whilst downstairs is all about the dining. It’s the place Claudinho loves to go, especially on a Sunday evening, for its very chill atmosphere. Just rock up, take a seat, have a drink & indulge in good food, in the company of friends. The food, is rather “particular”, as Claudinho puts it.

Going Om’s twist on an Indian street food classic – Pani Puri using Kueh Pie Tee cups!

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