Singapore’s Hawker Heritage: Ice Kachang

Everest, highest mountain in the world: 8,848 meters.

Ice kachang, sweetest mound in the world: 20 centimeters.

It’s like a rainbow collided into a berg of ice crystals, and decided to stay for good. And to find its pot of gold, all you have to do is chip away at the mass of finely hewn frozen bits, endowed with syrups of various hues, until you get to that treasure chest of red beans, pandan jellies, chin chow (grass jelly) and attap (palm) seeds – and that’s just scratching the surface of what could lie beneath. (If there’s slices of jackfruit, you’ve hit the jackpot.)

It's like Jackson Pollock working on ice.

It’s like Jackson Pollock working on ice. (At Old Airport Food Centre. © Desiree Koh)

We like to be dramatic about our tropical humidity here in Singapore. Instead of just a cold beer, we dunk ice cubes into our mugs of lager. Instead of just a boring sno-cone, we fill it with Southeast Asian treats then crown it with everything from sweet creamed corn, soursop or honeyed sea coconut to durian, aloe vera or ice cream. This is way more than just a cherry on top. These hedonistic heaps are our signature year-round cooler, a comestible AC for the soul.

It did not require brain surgery to dream up these psychedelic trips, just necessity being the mother of ice machination. In the 1950s and 1960s, pushcart drink peddlers hand-chipped ice balls drizzled with gula melaka (brown palm sugar) or rose syrup as an income supplement. The more adroit street sculptors were able to get the ice down to featherweight texture so each bit dissolved upon the tongue after just the slightest fluttering dance on the tastebuds. The advent of manually operated ice machines meant that vendors had to develop a sleight of hand skill in steadying a block of ice while cranking the shaving mechanism with the other, kind of like a master barber on crack. Now that the machines are automated, the challenge lies in forming a perfect cone each go. And many ice kachang (Malay for “nut;” within the context of the dessert it refers to the red beans) hawkers are all about outdoing each other with outrageous ingredient and topping combinations. The pièce de résistance at Tiong Bahru Market’s Liang Liang Garden Dessert stall is the Milo Dinosaur ice kachang, a riff on the popular local drink that smothers the summit with its namesake chocolate malt powder.

Treats in TechniColor.

Treats in TechniColor. (At Old Airport Food Centre. © Desiree Koh)

Me, I customize. I keep it simple, so from the outside, it looks as basic as ice kachang can be – just gula melaka and evaporated milk snaking down from the peak. Inside, instead of kachang, it’s ingredients from cheng teng, another local treat to beat the heat with. I go up to my favorite dessert stall at East Coast Lagoon Village and say, “My usual, please.” And it’s all cool.

P/S: The tallest ice kachang ever built in Singapore happened on July 22, 2006 in Chinatown – it’s in the Guinness Book Of World Records.

Ice kachangicekacang is one of our commemorative SG50 icons.

 

Singapore’s Hawker Heritage: Chicken Rice

Last week, I attended STORM magazine’s Keep It Going conference that discussed, debated and divined how sustainability in Singapore might unfurl and be harnessed. (I am a frequent contributor to the quarterly literary journal captained by rock star veteran journalist Kannan Chandran.) Covering the “Feeding The Hunger Of The Masses” panel, I was struck by these words from chef/restaurant design consultant/World Gourmet Summit mastermind/thought provocateur Peter Knipp: “Singapore is a food nation… but do you know the history of your food? And who’s behind it?” I do, but I wanted to know more. Basing this little project on a recent list by CNN Travel on “40 Singapore Foods We Can’t Live Without,” I decided to satiate some curiosity pangs.

For Singaporeans, the chicken rice always comes first. Here's Yeo Keng Nam's roasted varietal. © Desiree Koh

For Singaporeans, the chicken rice always comes first. Here’s the roasted version at Yeo Keng Nam in Braddell – they’ve been winging it for more than 50 years. © Desiree Koh

To say my mother is Hainanese and a gifted cook is like saying Singaporeans love to eat. Growing up in Hougang’s Hainanese kampong (village) community on my great-grandmother’s chicken rice (fowl fattened for the grand sacrifice, rice steamed in its fat, its glistening skin the outlying ingredient of the chilli sauce), very few renditions pass my mom’s taste test.

Chicken rice is succulent chicken infused with ginger, then either poached or slung into a furnace and roasted. Expertly sliced with a flourish that’s Shaolin monk to the sushi master’s Samurai precision, the beautifully splayed meat is served atop rice first fried in chicken fat before being steamed in the poultry’s juices, pandan and ginger to fragrant heaven. Which means a visitor from China’s Hainan island would absolutely not recognize one of his or her native dishes.

There, a skinny fowl is accompanied by oily rice and ground green chilli, and a pork stock is used in the preparation. When chicken rice arrived from Hainan, fresh off the junk boat in the colonial 1850s, the Cantonese (oh, those mighty master chefs of Chinese cuisine!) introduced kalamansi into the chilli sauce. They also turned it red, effectively giving chicken rice its Singaporean citizenship with the immigration of these local Southeast Asian ingredients into the recipe. The dish took on a more curvaceous shape with tender young chickens, and started growing in popularity from the downtown Hainanese enclaves of Middle Road, Purvis Street and Sea Street in the early 1900s. Street peddlers shaped the rice by hand into softball-shaped balls before wrapping them in banana leaves for quicker and more seamless transactions.

At stalwarts such as Yet Con, Chin Chin and Yeo Keng Nam, dark soy sauce and an elixir of freshly ground ginger and garlic complete the condiment tray; Hainanese purists drizzle the dark soy sauce over their perfectly round mound of rice, and mix the ginger/garlic dip into the chilli. Like most Singaporean dishes, the spice makes or breaks its case for epicurean euphoria – weak sauce can render a chicken rice non-existent. Make your request for breast, wing or drumstick portions, topping off with add-ons of gizzard, liver and intestines (best to go with a group, so you can pick every damned part clean).

There are lots of big name chicken rice stalls, such as the Bour(roll eyes)dain-worshipped Tian Tian, Wee Nam Kee and Boon Tong Kee, but for chicken rice with soul, Delicious Boneless Chicken Rice at Katong Shopping Centre (865 Mountbatten Road), Five Star Hainanese Chicken Rice (191 East Coast Road) and Yeo Keng Nam (8 Braddell Road) are where you’ll find my mom digging into her favorite thigh-and-gizzard combo.

chickenriceChicken rice is one of our commemorative SG50 icons.

No Eater Is An Island

Last night, on a lawn – nay, a grass patch – in Singapore’s Chinatown along Kreta Ayer Road, a wooden stage was erected on stilts under a sprawling canvas tent. Almost all the plastic chairs were filled by gleeful, chuckling elderly aunties and uncles, two tourists, and one younger woman with a large camera, alternating between that and Instagramming the Chinese opera performance everyone was enthralling in. The cloying soprano arias and melodies of wayang (a local Malay term for live plays) drifted from speakers on stage left and right, sucked from a solo microphone hanging from the rafters, as incense smoke wisped its way from the makeshift Taoist altars on the other end of the tent; all these molecules met in the middle over the heads and produced a metaphysical reaction best described as star-kissed moonshine, that state of being in the right moment, the sweet spot, the sensation of knowing there was nowhere else to be.

Cantonese opera in Singapore’s Chinatown. © Desiree Koh

About one hundred meters away in Kreta Ayer Square was another tent, this one of nylon, a projected image of Scottish chef Will Meyrick on one end. The soundtrack was not the cacophony of Chinese instruments and gong strikes, but ambient electronica percussioned by the frequent maracas of cocktails and ice being shaken. Old men peered in, and wondered why their usual chess spots had morphed into a luminescent bar counter. Not even Usain Bolt could have covered this distance and not wonder if he’d false started into a different dimension. But it’s not as extreme as you’d think.

Chef Will Meyrick beating the heat. © Desiree Koh

Chatting with Chinatown boss James Ong, he reiterated that the area has always ushered progress without closing one eye on the rear-view mirror of celebrating traditions. It’s this peripheral vision that’s driven the heritage district to what it is today, with some of Singapore’s best restaurants, bars and creative juice harmonizing with generations-old shophouses, businesses built by immigrants, and local street food where it all started. But for the next two weeks, we’ll forget the cheesy contrivances of Club Street, be comforted even though stalwart hawker ground zero Maxwell Road Food Center is closed, because Gastrogig will be unfurling the cuisines of Meyrick and chef Peeter Piehl of Estonia in their now-legendary pop-up presentations.

Setting up a mobile kitchen on a Chinatown street, then laying out tables and chairs to enjoy some of the best food that can be found in Southeast Asia? That’s as Singaporean eating as you can get, and that’s the current rendition of Gastrogig over the upcoming fortnight. Thirty years ago, my grandfather held my hand as we wove through crowded Smith Street to share a table with strangers at pre-air-conditioning Tak Po, dim sum splayed in front of us. This weekend, I’ll shake hands with people I’ll meet for the first time, pull seats up to our mutual table, and chow in union. Last night’s canapés gave a taste of what the Chef Meyrick mettle was all about:

A version of Indonesian corn fritters, a light encasement instead of a heavier batter. © Desiree Koh

Ask Chef Meyrick how he got from the Scottish isles to Balinese archipelago (with a stop in that continent masquerading as island, Australia), and he’ll say, “By plane.” The truth lies in the tome that is Inspirations of Sarong, the cookbook Meyrick spent two years working on to capture everything native Asians – particularly of the Southeast variety – already know: our street food kicks your food trucks’ asses. (I love a great taco al pastor, empanada, Chicago-style hot dog, kofta, kebab, &c. as much as another eater with 10 stomachs but come on, what’s taken the world so long to realize braised pig’s intestines and banh mi will put you on the rocketship to galactic gastronomy?) Oh, the stories he’ll tell – the 45-year-old Phnom Penh woman who had never been on a plane before, whom he flew back to Bali so she could teach him how to cook Cambodian. The 60-year-old Beijing dumpling mistress who only spoke in Chinese proverbs, that also returned with him to Denpasar to impart her skills. She now wants to travel every year.

Tuna betel – stuff all and all into your mouth, addictive not just because of the leaf. © Desiree Koh

“That’s what food is about for me,” says Meyrick. “It’s communication, an old language that depicts religion, history, culture. As long as you’re cooking the food of a culture, you’ve got to know the history of the people first, and then you can start to understand how they live.”

Washington oysters in red namh jihm, beautiful bivalves coming out of their shells only to be plunged into flaming Thai spice. © Desiree Koh

The chef recalls going into the homes of strangers to tune his craft, and will soon be traversing “the four corners of Thailand cooking with old ladies” for his next project.

“I hope you guys will also get the inspiration to believe in street food and where food comes from. With Asian food, we’re not re-creating anything – what we’re trying to do is keep it alive.”

Alaskan scallops with crispy shredded duck – go west, Peking duck! © Desiree Koh

After I left the Gastrogig tent, I went over to the wayang tent to watch the rest of the Cantonese opera, wishing my grandmother (signature dishes: braised pig’s trotters in sweet vinegar, Hakka taro abacus beads, lotus root and pork soup) was with me.

End of Act I, intermission. © Desiree Koh

Gastrogig Guest Stars

Gastrogig, Singapore’s new series of pop-up epicurean encounters, takes place appropriately on a rooftop, where there is nothing standing between the next generation of the world’s best chefs and the stars.

Call it an alignment of the culinary cosmos. Taking the elevator of a non-descript building up to the sixth floor, I wondered what awaited when the doors opened. The answer – which held true for the rest of the evening – was something beyond the usual garden of eatin’ dreamin’.

Ku De Who? Gastrogig’s lounge is the tops.

Stacks of construction planks served as backdrop for an intimate lounge affair, put together at varying heights and sizes so you could cosy up on bright red cushions or gather around a makeshift cocktail stand. Under a splay of tangled white lights that topped a woodsy gazebo, mismatched chairs and tables symbolized the multitude of sensory appreciations that make up the finest gourmet experiences, while immaculate table settings set the scene for serious eating.

We dined all night to a soul fado band.

Beyond the barricades, a white T-shirted Sá Pessoa orchestrated a most impressive makeshift kitchen in which Portuguese olive oil looked right at home. With passion bubbling under a calm demeanour, the chef embodied the pop-up spirit as he conducted stewing sauces and the occasional blazing grill – scrappy resourcefulness designed with flair and flavor that has brought him to the forefront of Lisbon’s culinary golden age. Forget the Michelin-laded Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa carnivals that only catch a whiff of their namesakes a few times a year – you want the real chef making your supper happen, including hand-carrying home-cured bacalhau from Portugal, you dine with Gastrogig.

Alma redux in Singapura.

Tapping on her experience as part of the Savour food festival team, Jasmine Cheah conceived Gastrogig to bring novel cuisine from emerging gastronomic destinations to Singapore, celebrated over just one weekend each month. I enjoyed best the caldeirada, a fisherman’s stew with lilts of lemongrass, cardamom and chills…

The caldeirada, featuring chef Sá Pessoa’s love of celebrating Mediterranean traditions with global influences.

… and the chef’s signature bacalhau paired with chickpea purée. All this under the glow of moonlight and kissed by star shine, which bestowed a magical zest to everything Sá Pessoa, Cheah, and their team had already accomplished. It was the first Portuguese fine dining presentation in Singapore, and we’ve only just begun.

A fish named bacalhau cures all ills.

I covered Gastrogig’s debut for SilverKris, Singapore Airlines’ in-flight magazine. Read the article here.

Distinctive, Distinguished and Disgruntled

Eating at The Disgruntled Chef generally leaves me bewitched, bothered and bewildered.

See, I have a problem with small plates. It works for tapas (bar food – free pass) and dim sum (tradition – no fight), and I get the concept of variety and conviviality and intimacy, but seriously, it’s lame. If you want to chow, you go all the way. I hate having to mask my sincerity when I say, “You have the last bite” of a really tasty something wonderful. I hate having to carve something out of a nothing foamy swirl. I hate getting the plate when almost all of a much-needed dab of 24-hour reduction has been sopped up. Most times, I want a huge slab of apple pie with all my buttered crumbs intact and vanilla bean ice cream not yet deconstructed by not Grant Achatz.

But the first time we sidled past not having reservations at Saturday prime brunch time and slid up to the marble-slabbed bar at Daniel Sia’s place, I was reminded that there is a reason for everything. First, a sprawling counter to fit all the small plates you want (there will be many); also front row seats to one of the best shows in the house, the showy flows of cocktails (gentleman’s pours – just right for mischievous madams.). Like Sia’s cuisine, the drinks don’t mess with tradition – they keep the provenance intact, then make things even better. It’s like the serif flourish of John Hancock’s signature on the Declaration of Independence.

On the crabcakes, I really liked the tomato chili jam – remou-who? – for cutting through the fine crumb crust.

Which makes sense, when you think about how Sia left The White Rabbit as executive chef two years ago to open his own shop, having worked his way up the line from a junior chef at Les Amis. And that’s a cause for celebration, so two weekends ago, we were gathered in the restaurant’s corner of Dempsey Hill by the very kind invitation of The Disgruntled Chef, to do what we do best there – eat, drink, convive.

The baked bone marrow was not on the birthday menu, but buttery and slippery, it begins at the tip of your tongue and slides nonchalantly down as seamlessly as an ice cube, except with nothing but warmth and love.

If the dinner was a greatest hits of regular favorites and a preview of a new record, then it’s not too different from Bruce Springsteen’s current “Wrecking Ball” tour. I came to a truce with the restaurant’s small plates concept when I saw how they took pride in serving your order in courses, thoughtfully shepherding the flow of a meal with your tasting pleasure in consideration – as carefully crafted as the Boss’s set lists and yes, that Sunday evening was also a marathonal mastication.

Immacandcheeseculate.

However, I’m going to eat my words and jump straight to what has always been the marquee dish for me at The Disgruntled Chef – the crayfish mac & cheese. Do you know what it’s like to miss New Orleans? I do, because it’s one of my favorite cities in the world, and Sia has dragged crawdaddies, one of its best things, from the muck and made it even more illicit. It’s like macaroni eloped with creamy white cheese during Mardi Gras in Treme. It makes lobsters roll in their graves and wish they could ditch Nantucket for Nawlins. You want to toss your silverware aside and claw into this. Let the cheese streak through the air, you slurping up gravity-defying strands, like tugging at heartstrings.

The best of the rest:

And so, the small plates once again proved me wrong, happily, and while nothing else could fit into my gastro-intestinal tract, there was plenty of room on my happy cloud for the splendid service by manager Shireen Sheikh and the delightful service team, on top of marketer Bethany Chuah’s enthusiastic hospitality. Clue: they all know their food and drink extremely well.

Walking out and thanking Chef Sia, I don’t think he looked disgruntled at all.

Brew Crew

I have been to Belgium several times, not just for the beer (read my lips), and have always visited Bruges, as we have a very dear family friend, Livia, who lives and runs a bed and breakfast there. (Judge Belgium not by the European Union, but for its gift to the world: Trappist monks.) But no matter how many times you’ve been to Bruges, it always takes a while to find De Garre, a cafe where the house specialty tripel is one of the most delicious to ever ebb down my esophagus, because you first have to be slender enough to make your way through the medieval sliver of an alley to get to its door, without tripping on any wretchedly treacherous cobblestone. (I accomplished the latter, and barely accomplished the former.)

Good tripels come in threes.

The first time we were there, Livia clarified, “Anyone here who is drunk, carousing and causing a disturbance is either British or American.” That’s because Belgians don’t drink to get drunk – notice how bars are called cafes. Sipping a beer with friends is the honorific equivalent of grabbing coffee to catch up or enjoy a post-repast tea. Beer is not for downing but for crowning a beautiful afternoon in the sun or a cozy nightcap. The fact that De Garre, one of All About Beer‘s 125 Places to Have a Beer Before You Die, is situated somewhere between Bruges’ main market square and its littler one signifies everything in balance and moderation. Their tripel nestles happily at 11.5 percent A.B.V., and you will not be served more than three chalices in one visit. There is no reason to do yourself that disfavor – anything more than that leads to diminishing returns in flavor.

Top shelf at Brewers Craft.

Last Saturday, my buddy in everything good and happy about life (softball, tennis, eating, the same last name of Koh, beers), Lynette, and I visited Brewers Craft in Clementi on Singapore’s west coast for a beer tasting (note I am a lifelong Eastie and do not typically cross Buona Vista Road, to me the local Mason-Dixon Line, unless for extraordinary reasons). Actually, my main compulsion for venturing over there was to pick up a bottle of Abstrakt’s Imperial Stout (17.1 percent A.B.V.; as with all its beers, brewed just once in limited quantities), but let’s not sweat the details and hop to the story.

Much better than “Sideways,” the movie.

We found Brewers Craft after meandering past hazy incense shops and hardware shops so eccentrically put together you might find a screw loose in a haywirestack, but only after bumping into Meng-Chao, the beermaster of the house. It’s half a storefront, empty bottles of some of the world’s best beers displayed on shelves lining the walls. You know you can trust a specialty beer store when its cellar takes up half of its space. In the middle, there is a small table, enough for sippers to cuddle elbows while celebrating the communion of convivial consumption.

Evidence that Brewers Craft is a cool place.

And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it. We sat down with two older guys who were happy to jabber on about everything from giving ex-convicts a second chance to parenthood, then after they left, three dudes from INSEAD took their seats and taught us that the world’s second largest Oktoberfest takes place in Brazil, that South American craft brewers are experimenting with ancient grains and seeds (happy days for runners!), and that beer brings people together (this last one was a review session in something we already knew). Wine connoisseurs swaggle their tongues and compete in grape name spelling bees and sniff corks and don’t have bellies big enough for hearty guffaws. Us beer folks just hang out and swap stories and buy each other rounds.

Can-can.

Saturday’s tasting was a tribute to Toshi Ishii who carved his name at Stone Brewing Co. in San Diego before returning home to Japan to head up Yo-Ho Brewing: we started with Yo-Ho’s Aooni I.PA. and Tokyo Black porter, before tackling Stone’s Pale Ale and Arrogant Bastard (of course). We skipped Stone’s I.P.A. – I am just not a fan of this style, it’s too hoppening for me. Meng-Chao is a man of few words, but he makes up for it in generous pours and much wisdom about fine beers, which he shares from the pulpit of his stool.

Win-win situation.

Three hours later, we left with a crate of beers for domestic use, and I couldn’t help but look forward to bringing my parents with me the next time I journey to the west. After all, they inducted me into the wonderful world of drinking at age nine, with great foresight – they knew the day would come when nothing was as beautiful as tippling with your spawn, especially when they’re the ones picking up the tab and paying for the cab ride home.

Lego of my beer!

Holey Communion

To find the only authentic New Yawk bagels in Singapore, I had to wander through Sarnies, a cafe modeled after Melbourne’s finest, where a flat white is a coffee order and not a Studio 54 bathroom purchase.

I was there to witness the birthing of Mama Bagel’s babies, hole-somely dense, chewy yeasted dough that cuts no corners in rounding up the tedious process of their gestation, a term more eventful than Elliott Spitzer’s governorship.

Striptease.

First, ringleader Mama Bagel (Jennifer Harrison, if you’re yeasty) mixes and kneads her dough, a finger-crunching technique that’s like the Swedish sports massage of baking. By hand, this used to take her 15 minutes to craft six bagels – the industrial mixer in the Sarnies kitchen now does the job in eight to 10 minutes for a batch of 30. Then, she lets the dough rest.

Pulling bagel resources.

Next, the dough is portioned out. Rest. Then, it’s shaped by hand into that bagel ring ding-a-ling. Rest. After which they’re whisked into boiling water and fished out. Rest.

Bagel bagel, toil and trouble, 100 percent worth it.

(At this point, you might be asking, “With so many rest stops… are we there yet??” Ya know what? Nobody gets to the promised land in 60 seconds.) Fresh out of the boiling water, they are steamy, wistful, very willow-o’-the-wisp – like they have just woken up from a beautiful dream.

Hot and hydrated.

Into the oven they go, pasty white, wan and wrinkly like Prince Charles’ scalp; and out they pop, bronzed, sculpted studs of Olympian lord of the rings. If you want to celebrate with a cigar, you should. Yeah, yo Mama Bagels so ugly, they be the real thing.

It’s a bagel!

I first found Mama Bagel at the Loewen Gardens farmer’s market, where I was attracted to her seedy nature. Because poppy seeds are illegal in Singapore – high, heady times, for sure – Mama Bagel’s alternative is to sprinkle organic chia seeds from Mexico for that springy, gelatinous crunch with a nutty taste that complements the bagel chaw so well. When I think “bagel” and “chia seeds,” I think running and Tarahumara, that Mexican ultra-running tribe, and the next thing I know, I’m wondering if I’ve found the perfect pre-long run fuel. Energy boosting, full of omega-3 acids, anti-oxidants, protein, fiber, calcium, and unprocessed, these whole grains are like a runner’s hole in one. Some girls like diamonds on top of their rings – I like chia seeds on mine. What pleases me most is that Mama Bagels are completely without chemicals, preservatives, fat nor eggs – they make me feel like a natural woman.

Bagelfast of champions.

The first time I took Mama Bagel on a test drive, I topped the chia seed bagel with almond butter and organic, all-natural sugarless cherry jam, and cruised through an hour and 45 minutes on the MacRitchie trails. The same bagel belly bump gassed the Energizer 18K Night Trail Race, and I revved to the finish in 2:07 without needing to pop an energy gel at my usual 1:45 re-fueling point. This weekend, the pedal was pushed to the 2:30 trail mettle, and although this time it was a sesame bagel with the same shmears, I still didn’t need to pit stop. Wow. That’s a really, really great situation to be in, especially in a race.

Mama Bagels also come in cinnamon-raisin, plain and onion – the gold standard of New Yawk delis – and I’m slowly making my way across the flavors. You don’t want to keep something like this under lox and key – everyone needs to know that great bagels in Singapore are not a lost cause, as the Mets have been for many seasons. For Big Applers in town, Mama Bagels are your lifesavers, although you won’t be getting any deli sass with that. For everyone else, they are ring king of the hill, top of the list, head of the heap. Start spreading the news.

The hole shebang.

Mama Bagel bakes them fresh with sass on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at Sarnies (136 Telok Ayer Street) and sells them with aplomb at the Loewen Gardens Farmers Market (second and fourth Saturday of the month).