Guan Hoe Soon

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My uncle took us to Guan Hoe Soon, apparently a venerable institution of Peranakan food. I didn’t have the best memories of them at my last visit there many years ago, but this time, Guan Hoe Soon redeemed itself with excellent renditions of sambal prawns ($12), beef rendang ($12) and sambal timun (complimentary starter). The prawns were fresh and sweet, and the sambal was topnotch, flavourful and well-balanced so that it was hard to tell exactly what went into the sauce. The beef rendang was tender, a rarity for this dish, and again with very well-balanced flavours. I liked also how they did the sambal timun so simply and well, because a lot of places take the attitude that free starters are a take-it-or-leave-it affair.

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The ngoh hiang ($10) and sambal kangkong ($10) were decent, but nothing special to travel for. The ayam buah keluak ($12) was a disappointment, partly because they mixed the buah keluak with meat but mainly because the sauce was rather anaemic.

Other than that, the desserts were decent. Most order the cendol ($3.50), which the others reported to be good.

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I had the sago gula melaka ($3.50), which was, again, decent but not worth going back for. I wasn’t sure about the ice ball because it took way too long to chip through and tended to freeze the sago to unappetisingly hard little blobs. Otherwise, the gula melaka was nice and thick and I think the coconut milk freshly squeezed.

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Come here if you’re in the East, on a budget, and have a craving for Peranakan food.

Guan Hoe Soon
38 Joo Chiat Place
Tel: +65 6344 2761

Quick Eats: Teochew at Havelock

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DC and I ducked into Mu Liang Zai Liang Kee Restaurant for a quick lunch one hot day. We needed something quick and not too heaty, ordering an oyster omelette and stir-fried baby spinach to accompany some porridge. The oyster omelette was perfectly cooked, crisp at the edges and very fluffy on the inside. The oysters were lightly cooked and coated with a very moreish sambal sauce. It was ambrosial with the porridge, I’d eat that in a flash anytime!

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The stir-fried baby spinach was expertly done with just the right tenderness and a light touch of wok hei. We asked for less oil to make it a slightly healthier meal and they obliged. It’s not the kind of place where food only tastes good if done with too much oil. The only issue was that the porridge was a bit too mushy, definitely not the clean tasting Teochew style porridge with intact rice grains. This was just run-of-the-mill. Maybe we’ll order rice next time.

Mu Liang Zai Liang Kee Restaurant
719 Havelock Road
Tel: 6272 3182

Hajah Maimunah

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Hajah Maimunah is the grandmummy of nasi padang places. It’s got lots of very excellent stuff. Make sure you get there early so you get the best selection. There’s always  a queue, so try to avoid the peak lunch period. The day we went, the stars of the meal were the grilled parrotfish and the tahu telor. The parrotfish was done to perfection as parrotfish is very often overcooked. Here, the firm flesh that so easily goes tough and rough was just yielding and incredibly fresh and sweet. Coupled with the kicap manis with chilli and lime juice, the fish was all I really needed. But wait! There was the tahu telor. The tower of good quality taukwa was deep fried till crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. It was another triumph of deepfry and sweet sauce.

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Other good things of note: begedil, grilled chicken with sambal, sayur lodeh. The begedil was soft and flavourful, I always love these potato patties. The grilled chicken with sambal chilli was tender and the sambal full of complex spices. The sayur lodeh had heaps of tender vegetables and very yummy tempeh inside. The beef rendang was good too, with an incredibly aromatic rempah, the only downside was that the meat could have been a lot more tender.

Another excellent thing about the place is the incredibly array of desserts there. There are quite a few different sweet soups like green bean soup and boiled bananas in coconut milk. We didn’t have room for that and took away some kueh-kueh. There’s such a mind-boggling variety there. All I can say is that all the ones I tried were good!

Go try other dishes there and let me know what else is good!

Hajah Maimunah
20 Joo Chiat Road #01-02
Tel: 6348 5457

Traditional Teochew

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We went out with family for the famous Teochew food at Ah Orh, mainly because DC’s grandma wanted to have braised goose. I have no objections whatsoever to one of my favourite types of fowl and happily joined in. The star dish of goose was excellent, where the slightly gamey taste of goose was very well set off by the flavourful spices. I liked how mellow the dish was. We made some halfhearted comments about taking some back for those at home, but ended up polishing off the whole dish instead. There were some other bits to the dish as well: tau kwa, braised pork belly and cucumber. I liked the soft, yet rather dense texture of the very fresh and creamy tau kwa and also the cucumber chunks that very nicely soaked up the goose gravy. It’s well worth coming here just for the goose I think.

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But won’t you miss out if you only eat the goose here? The hae cho (prawn rolls) here are pretty good. They’re made with yam, so a little different from the norm. I’m not sure how much prawn really goes into this but I think the stuffing is prawn, minced pork, yam and maybe chestnuts. All that is wrapped in tau kee (beancurd skin), deep fried and then eaten with a burnt caramel sauce. I quite liked this version although the yam made it rather heavy after a couple. I had to go easy on this to make room for the rest of the meal.

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They made a decent rendition of oyster omelette, with barely cooked oysters atop a nicely executed omelette. DC’s mum wasn’t too keen on the fact that the two had obviously been cooked separately. I guess she’s far more discerning than me on this! For me, oyster and egg make such a magical combination that as long as they’re decently cooked, I’m happy.

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The weakest link in the meal was the braised fish head with bitter gourd. The taste was all over the place and not harmonised at all. There was bitter and salty and chilli-hot, and that didn’t enhance the slightly over-fried fish pieces. It didn’t help that the fish was rather bony and we were spitting out bits of bone more than chewing and enjoying. This was a dish I wouldn’t re-order.

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Special mention must be made of their sambal kang kong. I liked how there was plenty of wok hei and a very flavourful sambal with bright flavours that really stood out. It was quite a spicy dish too, so beware!

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We weren’t really going to order this because we’d stuffed ourselves silly. But how to go to a Teochew restaurant and not order orh nee for dessert? I am a huge fan of yam paste and while this version looked rather disgusting (pardon the photo), I was surprised by how much I slurped it up and even fought DC for seconds! This yam paste found that sweet spot of silky yet with the occasional little chunk of yam to remind you that it’s made from real yam and not powder. It wasn’t overly oily or lemak either and while I was sceptical that there wasn’t pumpkin (and very little gingko nut, to DC’s dismay) but mainly red date, the paste did fine on its own. You have to save some space in your stomach for this dessert!

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Ah Orh Seafood Restaurant
Blk 115, Jalan Bukit Merah, #01-1627
Tel: 6275 7575

PeraMakan

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It was my father’s birthday, of course I had to take him out for good food. He requested Peranakan food and PeraMakan naturally came to mind. We’d eaten at the now-defunct restaurant in Joo Chiat and were crestfallen to find that it’d disappeared. Only much later did I find out from a friend that it’d reappeared at Keppel Club. Said friend raved about the food and especially the durian pengat. I’m not a durian fan, but Dad is. We were all set.

We started of with something not normally associated with Peranakan food, a salad. The jantung pisang kerabu was a salad of banana flowers, green mango and cucumber topped with cooked prawns, a light sambal belachan sauce and covered with a generous dollop of thick coconut cream. The sambal belachan was accented with lime juice and ginger flower, making it a surprisingly light-tasting dish. Goes without saying that the prawny tangy crunchy salad was a hit with the whole family.

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Next up was probably the star of the show: ayam buah keluak. I’m not sure why but the dish came with four pieces of chicken and only two nuts. I was pretty surprised when later I passed by a table of two and saw at least three nuts in their dish. I certainly hope it’s because the other table somehow requested for extra nuts and not because of inconsistency because I’m such a buah keluak fan! The dish was very well made, with tender chicken and very thick black and flavourful sauce. The best part was obviously the buah keluak,which was scraped out of the shell and stuffed back in.

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The deeply smoky, earthy nuts were so ambrosial I scraped out every tiniest bit and even licked as much of the insides clean as I could while at the same time avoiding an embarrassing trip to the dentist or worse!

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Now the dish I remember best of the old PeraMakan was the amazingly well made sambal terung. The brinjal was perfectly grilled till the skin turned a beautiful deep glossy purple. It was smothered with slightly sweet tomatoey sambal and topped with yummy prawns. Just like the ayam buah keluak, I could probably gobble down a whole dish of it all on my own.

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Next up was the only dud of the evening. It was a special: pomfret in assam nanas. The fish wasn’t particularly fresh and the flavours seemed rather watered down. A downer next to everything else on the table.

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The last main was almost an epiphany. You’d think otak otak would be a quotidian type of dish, but this one is the Platonic ideal of otak otak. The grilled dish looked almost like a lasagne, it was so well browned on the top. But bite into the coconut and seafood cake and taste the unctuousness of coconut. Couple this with perfectly cooked fish, prawn and sotong as well as uber-complementary spices and, well, you’re in otak heaven!

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Then came the desserts. I can’t personally vouch for the durian pengat, but considering how quickly it disappeared into my Dad’s stomach (yes, Dad’s usually queasy about dessert, no less rich ones), it must’ve been pretty darn good!

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I had the sago gula melaka and the gula melaka! It was so thick and rich and oozy I fell in love with it instantly. The only downer was that the sago was presented in the usual moulded jelly lump rather than separate pearls. I much prefer the little sago bits to be, well, in bits than in one slightly chewy lump. It was the fly in the ointment, but what lovely ointment that gula melaka was.

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DC had chendol which was very excellent too, again thanks to the superlative gula melaka and nicely cooked red beans.

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Mum had the apom balik filled with kaya. I quite liked the coconut-pandan fragrance of the pancake but felt that the kaya was a tad overpowered, I felt that the kaya could have been more flavourful, either with caramel flavour from slow-cooking the kaya longer or from more pandan flavour. That aside, it was a well executed dish and a nice sweet bite to round off the very excellent meal.

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PeraMakan
Level 3, Keppel Club
10 Bukit Chermin Road
Tel: 63772829

Favourites at Changi Village

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One of my favourite hawker centres is the one at Changi Village. There’s just so much variety and plain good food there. The only problem is that the ventilation is bad and some stalls are either sold out or worse – closed – if you arrive too late. The beef noodles are a case in point. Arrive too late and they’re likely to be sold out of the dry version. The soup rendition is pretty decent, but oh how the dry one beats it hands down! The gooey starchy brown sauce is flecked with bits of finely shredded beef, showing how much good stuff goes into the stew. Order it “mixed” so under the dark velvety sauce you’ll get lots of melt-in-the-mouth tendon, chewy tripe, tender braised beef and fresh beef slices. Squeeze over the lime, toss in the chilli sauce, mix and eat with the pickled onion-chinchalok accompaniment. All together, it makes for a lovely bowl of bliss.

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Just a few stalls along the row is another firm favourite. Guang Xing is hardly open when I’m there in the evenings, so make sure you have it for lunch. Once when DC and I weret there for Sunday brunch, I spied it just opening and immediately jumped at the chance for my favourite fried noodles with fish head. Even though the stall had only just opened, the wait was still at least 30 minutes long. Even though we spoiled our appetites during the wait with inferior nasi lemak and other assorted snacks, we managed to wallop the whole $10 plate of noodles. (In case you’re wondering, yes we are greedy but no $10 is really the minimum order.) We saw other tables of 3 or 4 going for the samd $10 plate so you can imagine how good it is. This dish has flavourful chunks of juicy and slightly cartilageous fish head  as well as thick beehoon fried in plenty of onion, garlic and ginger as well as spring onions, caixin and bitter gourd and finished off with some black bean. There’s plenty of wok hei and intense flavours. Accompanying it with the special sambal brings it to a whole new level. Notwithstanding having to spit out bits of snapper bone, gristle and scale, this stuff is my holy grail of fish head beehoon.

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Changi Village Beef Kway Teow Mee
#01-19 Changi Village Hawker Centre

Guang Xing Original Taste Fish Head Mee Hoon
#01-16 Changi Village Hawker Centre

Ubin Seafood

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DC and I pretended that we went to Pulau Ubin because we needed some fresh air and exercise and not really because we wanted to eat seafood. (Don’t tell anyone but we took a taxi from the jetty to Chek Jawa. Ssssh.) We headed to the one next to the little temple. It was the most crowded and the food looked pretty good.

We started off with sotong kia (crispy baby squid). Even though the sotong wasn’t very kia, they made it very well. It stayed crispy for quite a while despite the wet weather and it was very peppery and not too sweet.

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I really liked the sambal chilli lala (mussels in chilli sauce). Very few places do it well anymore. Here, the sauce is not too thick, not too sweet and just the right fieriness. The mussels were fresh and tasted of the sea and the gravy was sublime with rice.

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We opted for lobster instead of crayfish because of the cheap lobster promotion. It was done butter-style. The lobster wasn’t too bad with rather sweet flesh and wasn’t too tough. While the butter-batter was quite good, it wasn’t that memorable. I suspect it would have gone better with prawn instead.

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All in, the damage done was about $20 per person, not bad for lobster, squid and mussels. Yum.

The Art of Stir-Fry

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Stir-frying is actually quite simple, as long as you’re quite brave too! Most home cooks only do it on medium heat, resulting in food that’s more steamed than fried. Stir-frying requires a very hot wok and all the ingredients, in small quantities, on the ready. This makes sure that the food is fried quickly and you get that barely charred taste.

Here’s how to do it. First, heat a dry wok till very hot. Then add the oil, swirling to coat most of the wok. Wait till the oil starts to shimmer and barely smoke. Make sure the ingredients are ready. Add the aromatics, like chopped garlic, and stir like mad. When it’s fragrant, add the rest of your ingredients according to how long they take to cook, and keep stirring. Turn off the flame and then season.

Here are some ideas:

Almost Sambal Kang Kong

Ingredients:

2 tsp belachan (about thumb-size)
1 tbsp oil
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 chilli padi, finely chopped
1 bunch kang kong

Method:

  1. Toast the belachan in a dry wok until brown on both sides. Crush using a mortar and pestle.
  2. Add oil to the hot wok and when oil is shimmering, add the shallots and fry till fragrant.
  3. Toss in the chilli padi, belachan and kang kong and fry till kang kong turns deep green.

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Watercress and Tau Kwa Stir-Fried in Tau Cheow

Ingredients:

1 tbsp oil
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 cake tau kwa, cut into squares
1 bunch watercress, torn to small sections
1 tbsp tau cheow, crushed

Method:

  1. Heat the wok and the oil till oil shimmers, then add the garlic. Fry till fragrant.
  2. Add the tau kwa and fry till tau kwa is browned but not burnt.
  3. Add the watercress and tau cheow and fry till the veg turns deep green.

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Chicken, Mushroom and Bean Fry

Ingredients:
1 tbsp oil
as many mushrooms as you like, cut into strips
1 chicken breast, cut into small chunks
handful fine french beans, cut into sticks
2 tbsp shaoxing wine

Method:

  1. Heat the wok and the oil till shimmering. Add the mushrooms and fry till browned.
  2. Add the chicken and fry till browned slightly on all sides.
  3. Now add the french beans and fry for a few seconds.
  4. Add the shaoxing wine and stir till it stops bubbling, then turn off the heat. Add salt to taste.

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All recipes serve two. (Or one greedy person.)

Peranakan at the Arch

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We had Peranakan at the Arch,  opposite Raffles Hotel. It’s a convenient place to go for dinner as it’s in a quiet corner of the city. The place has lots of decor from Ikea, so it’s all simple and understated. I love the service here. First thing they ask is if you’d like iced or warm water. Our server was attentive and smiling all the time. She gave good suggestions for our orders and made us feel right at home.

The first dish was the winged bean salad with dried shrimp and sambal. The raw beans were crisp and tasted very green. They were tossed in a generous dose of  dried shrimp and fiery chilli and finished off with lime juice.  It was a great start to the meal.

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I enjoyed the squid in honey pineapple sauce. The sauce was sweet and tangy with a touch of chilli and the squid was cooked just right for me, chewy and on the edge to crunchy. My mum found it too tough for her liking.

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The sayur lodeh (mild vegetable curry) was a crowd pleaser. Cabbage and long beans were cooked till soft but not mushy in a satisfyingly lemak (rich with coconut milk) sauce. I could also taste the dried shrimp in the sauce.  That’s the reason why Peranakan food needs to be eaten with lots of rice. Thumbs up.

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Not wanting to be too greedy, we had only one meat dish, deep-fried pork ribs in lime and black sauce. This certainly isn’t a Peranakan dish but it sure is good. The deep-fried ribs were crisp despite being drowned in the sweet black sauce and they were very moreish. Calamansi lime halves and fried curry leaves were tossed in to add piquancy and fresh herbiness to the dish. Best dish of the evening.

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We were rewarded for our restraint for the main dishes. Dessert here was very decent. The sago gula melaka ($1.20) was cheap and good. Sure, it was a small bowl, but isn’t that all you need at the end of a meal? The sago came splashed with coconut milk and the gula melaka (palm sugar) syrup came in a little jug of warm goodness. The gula melaka was rich and caramelly while the sago was cooked till just soft, a perfect combination of sweet and bland.

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My brother had the pulut hitam (black glutinous rice porridge). It was coochengked with dried longan and finished off with coconut milk. I liked it because it was smooth and creamy without being cloying. It wasn’t too sweet and had a cheng (light) taste.

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Dinner for three came up to about $60. It’s reasonably priced considering the town location. While  my Peranakan friends would probably sniff at the not-quite authentic food, the cooking is good and it’s a worthy option for a quiet and convenient place for dinner.

The Arch Straits Cuisine
32 Seah Street
Tel: 6837 3132

Al Fresco Dining Next to a Monsoon Drain

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We’ve had takeaway crabs from Big Eater before but this was the first time we tried it out for dinner. It had a lovely riverside ambiance, even though the river is really more of a monsoon drain (yeah we know it’s Sungei Bedok, but a concrete drain is a concrete drain). The evening we went, it was so breezy that we asked the staff to switch off the overhead fan. Adding to the cheery atmosphere were crab shells decorated by creative customers.

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The food was pretty decent. I enjoyed what they called the hotplate tofu. It might as well be called chilli prawns with tofu since the sauce was quite spicy considering that we asked for less chilli. And check out the number of prawns in this dish!

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We came here for the crab. This time we took the crab beehoon, one of the specialty dishes. It was decent, but not fantastic, especially since there’s a cze char stall in Pasir Ris that serves a far superior version. No less, there was fresh meaty crab and springy noodles. Too bad the soup, while made creamy with evaporated milk, wasn’t aromatic enough. There was something missing, and it certainly wasn’t the msg. Got thirsty after downing half a bowl of the soup.

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The cereal prawn passed the taste test as the fresh juicy jumbo prawns were nicely offset with a light curry leaf flavour. I found that the oats were not crisp enough though my dining companions thought otherwise. I also prefer cereal prawns to be smaller so I can crunch up the prawn whole. It adds to the flavour. Hardly anyone serves this dish with smaller prawns these days so I shan’t quibble.

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The deep-fried soon hock was pretty decent. Fish was done so crisp that you could chomp through the small bones and fins. I liked the extra touch of deep fried ginger generously sprinkled on top. Too bad the sauce was a touch too salty. They need to lighten up on the soy sauce.

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What I really liked was the sambal kangkong. The sambal was aromatic and tasted freshly made. The colours really popped with bright red and deep emerald green inviting you to eat more. And of course the kangkong was young and crisp-tender. One of the best sambal kangkong dishes I’ve had in a while. I leave you with this picture I hurriedly snapped before the last few bits were snapped up.

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The damage? $145 for four people, including two drinks. Not bad if you want to go somewhere decent without queueing or paying crazy prices.

Big Eater Seafood
34 Jalan Pari Burong

Picardy Gardens

Tel: 6245 7268