While foodies in Singapore are ever hungry for the next new eatery, there are plenty of culinary institutions here that regulars flock to.
While new restaurants barely survive a year in the competitive dining scene here, some legends have endured multiple generations.
The upcoming epicurean extravaganza Asian Masters showcases some of these old-school establishments, such as 90-year-old Chinese restaurant Spring Court and 50-year-old Teochew Restaurant Huat Kee.
Diners can also look forward to British-Hainanese dishes at Violet Oon Singapore in Ion Orchard and fine Malay cuisine by chefconsultant Aziza Ali, who pioneered Malay fine dining in Singapore.
These culinary doyennes are featured alongside interesting additions such as a supper event at JB Ah Meng in Geylang; a home-dining experience by make-up artist Tinoq Russell Goh; and Burmese dishes by cookbook author Bryan Koh of cake company Chalk Farm.
While the main dining events run from March 1 to April 3, the year-long festival runs till Feb 29 next year and includes dining and cocktail promotions.
On April 1, the dining festivities culminate at the invite-only The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao Best Asian Restaurants Awards at Grand Hyatt Singapore.
The seventh edition of the annual Asian Masters, presented by Citibank Singapore, is jointly organised by Sphere Exhibits, a wholly owned subsidiary of Singapore Press Holdings, and F&B consultancy firm Poulose Associates.
Also paying tribute to culinary heritage is the newly launched Delicious Heirlooms book, which features 10 well-known family-run restaurants in Singapore. It is priced at $30 and published by Straits Times Press.
Some of the establishments include Islamic Restaurant in North Bridge Road and Chinese restaurant Fatty Weng in Smith Street.
The author, lawyer Ow Kim Kit, 43, tells the stories of how the families preserved their food legacies and stayed in business for decades.
The Sunday Times speaks to three of the stalwart eateries featured – Ka-Soh (Swee Kee Fish Head Noodle House); nasi padang specialist Sabar Menanti; and Peranakan restaurant Guan Hoe Soon – about how they have kept going all these years.
Highlights at the Asian Masters
LIANHE ZAOBAO PRESENTS THE GLENDRONACH DINNER AT TEOCHEW RESTAURANT HUAT KEE
What: Join Lianhe Zaobao food correspondent Ng Yimin as she hosts this dinner in celebration of Teochew Restaurant Huat Kee’s 50th anniversary. The six-course feast – specially curated by Huat Kee’s mother-and-son team of Madam Loh Hock Eng and Mr Lee Chiang Howe – features dishes such as pomfret soup with taro; signature braised caramelised sea cucumber and 30-head abalone; and glazed pork belly with glutinous rice and mashed taro. The dishes are paired with whiskies from Scottish whisky distillery GlenDronach.
Where: Teochew Restaurant Huat Kee, 02-01 RELC Building, 30 Orange Grove Road
When: March 7, 7pm Price: $270++ and $216++ (Citibank cards)
THE STRAITS TIMES PRESENTS A CELEBRATION DINNER AT SPRING COURT WITH HANDPICKED WINES
What: Hosted by The Straits Times senior food correspondent Wong Ah Yoke, this eight-course dinner at Chinese restaurant Spring Court features highlights such as traditional double-boiled bird’s nest in whole chicken; crispy crabmeat roll with chicken liver and salted egg yolk with spicy salt fried button mushroom; barbecued whole boneless suckling pig with fermented bean paste; and roasted whole boneless chicken stuffed with minced prawn. The dinner is paired with wines from Australian wine company Handpicked Wines.
Where: Spring Court, 52-56 Upper Cross Street
When: March 12, 7pm Price: $213++ and $170.40++ (Citibank cards)
A TASTE OF EXQUISITE MALAY CUISINE WITH AZIZA
What: Savour the finest of Malay cuisine by culinary doyenne Aziza Ali, known for her eponymous fine-dining restaurant on Emerald Hill, which ran for 24 years from 1979. Her menu at Grand Hyatt Singapore includes ayam panggang bersantan istimewa (grilled chicken breast sandwiched in grilled eggplant and coconut gravy); makthoum podina (tender lamb cooked in onions, tomatoes and mixed spices sauce with toasted almonds and mint leaves); and sambal kesum tasek (barramundi cooked in tamarind chilli spices, kesum leaves and topped with scallop).
Where: Grand Salon, Level 2 Grand Hyatt Singapore, 10 Scotts Road
When: March 19, 7pm Price: $118++ and $94.40++ (Citibank cards)
AWARD-WINNING AUTHOR BRYAN KOH PRESENTS “0451MB: AN EVENING OF FOOD FROM HIS BOOKS”, ACCOMPANIED BY WOODFORD RESERVE COCKTAILS
What: Cookbook author and cake business Chalk Farm co-founder Bryan Koh’s books come alive through his menu of Burmese food – made with recipes accumulated during his time in Myanmar. The menu features Mondti (Rakhine fish noodle soup with pounded green chilli sauce); Humba (pork belly with soya, vinegar and Saba bananas); Manuk Piaparen (Maranao chicken curry); and Champurrado (black rice and chocolate pudding with deep-fried mermaid fish).
Where: Auntie’s Wok and Steam, Andaz Singapore, 5 Fraser Street
When: March 21, 7pm Price: $128++ and $102.40++ (Citibank cards)
AN EVENING AT PERAMAKAN WITH VERAMONTE WINES
What: Savour a variety of classic Nonya dishes crafted by PeraMakan’s fourth-generation chef Kathryn Ho. Highlights include bakwan kepiting soup (minced pork and crab meatball soup); babi tohay (braised pork belly in red rice yeast); Nonya ayam buah keluak; nasi ulam (mixed herb rice); and Golden Coin Beef Rendang. The dishes are paired with Veramonte wines from Chile.
Where: PeraMakan, Level 3 Keppel Club, 10 Bukit Chermin Road
When: March 5, 7pm Price: $118++ and $94.40++ (Citibank cards)
INFINITI PRESENTS A WORLD OF SPICE WITH JACK DANIEL’S AND WOODFORD RESERVE WHISKIES AT THE SONG OF INDIA
What: One-Michelin-starred fine-dining Indian restaurant The Song Of India pairs its dishes with premium bourbon from Woodford Reserve, Kentucky, as well as Jack Daniel’s from Tennessee. Menu items include lobster porcini shorba (soup) served with chilli cheese khari stick; and Seafood Festa Art Palate, which includes Chettina prawn, Malvani mussels, Goan fish and crispy okra.
Where: The Song of India, 33 Scotts Road
When: March 6, 7pm Price: $108++ and $86.40++ (Citibank cards)
Old eateries and their heirloom dishes
KA-SOH (SWEE KEE FISH HEAD NOODLE HOUSE)
Heirloom dish: Fish head with black bean sauce ($24)
Where: Swee Kee Fish Head Noodle House, 96 Amoy Street, open: 11.30am to 2.30pm, 5.30 to 10pm daily, tel: 6224-9920; Ka-Soh, Alumni Medical Centre, 2 College Road; open: 11.30am to 2.30pm, 5.30 to 9.30pm daily, tel: 6473-6686
No shortcuts are taken when it comes to maintaining the quality of food at Ka-Soh and Swee Kee Fish Head Noodle House.
Second-generation owner Tang Tat Cheong, 65, insists care is the key to the survival of the family business started by his father at Great World Amusement Park in 1939.
When it moved to a shophouse in Chin Chew Street in the mid-1950s, the Swee Kee brand was established. By then, it was already known for its fish head noodles using snakehead fish as well as zi char dishes. It moved to its current premises in Amoy Street in 1997, when the Ka-Soh brand – named after Cantonese waitress Ka Soh Por, who used to work with the family – was established.
Its sister outlet Ka-Soh, moved around several locations before settling 10 years ago at Singapore General Hospital’s Alumni Medical Centre in College Road.
Swee Kee Fish Head Noodle House is best known for its signature sliced fish noodle soup (from $7.50), prawn paste chicken (from $8) and pork ribs (from $9.50). Its new outlet at Jewel Changi Airport will feature “a spin” on fish soup with the addition of prawn and crab, says Mr Tang’s son Cedric, 34, Ka-Soh’s marketing director. He has three siblings, aged 21 to 37, who also help out in the business.
Called Faai Di by Ka-Soh, the quick-service mini restaurant will be part of the Food Junction foodcourt and have its own seating area. The name is Cantonese for “hurry up”. The menu is still in the works and the younger Mr Tang is focused on making sure the traditional flavours are retained.
On the brand’s secret to longevity, the senior Mr Tang says: “Don’t cheat and always use good quality ingredients. We also evolve and follow trends as people’s dining patterns and taste buds are changing.”
Heirloom dishes: Ikan bakar and beef rendang ($7 to $10 as part of nasi padang)
Where: 747 North Bridge Road, open: 7.30am to 4.30pm (Tuesdays to Sundays), closed on Mondays
Sabar Menanti, a household name for nasi padang, started as a pushcart business in the 1920s and is still well-loved today.
Business boomed in the 1940s when it supplied food to coal wholesalers in Kallang. It has fed the likes of late American celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and local personalities such as former footballer Fandi Ahmad and comedian Najip Ali. On weekends, tourists come by the busload.
It is now helmed by Ms Maryulis Bagindor Marlian, 65, whom her son Iszahar Tambunan says is “a force to be reckoned with”, as she runs a tight ship to ensure a high standard of food.
Ms Maryulis, who took over the business from her parents, specialises in ikan bakar (charcoal-grilled fish), beef rendang, ayam bakar (charcoal-grilled chicken) and the breakfast favourite, lontong ($4.50). Nasi padang prices range from $7 to $10.
Her sister runs Indonesian restaurant Rumah Makan Minang in Kandahar Street, while one of her brothers used to run Sabar Menanti I in Shenton Way, which closed in 2017 for government redevelopment. The flagship Sabar Menanti outlet in North Bridge Road was established in the mid-1990s.
Mr Iszahar, 39, a broker, hopes to franchise and expand the business, but notes the need to do it “tactfully”.
“I have to ensure the food’s consistent quality. And while I don’t want my mother to stop working, I do want her to slow down. My involvement will tap the younger generation and the corporate crowd,” adds Mr Iszahar, who runs Sabar Menanti on Sundays, with his seven-year-old twin children in tow to help out.
On its success so far, Ms Maryulis, who still goes to the market every day at 5.30am to pick the freshest fish, says: “It’s about service and never stinting on ingredients.”
GUAN HOE SOON
Heirloom dish: Ayam buah keluak (from $16.80)
Where: 38/40 Joo Chiat Place, open: 11am to 3pm, 6 to 9.30pm daily
Info: Call 6344-2761 or go to www.guanhoesoon.com
The Yap family behind Peranakan restaurant Guan Hoe Soon is actually Hainanese, not Peranakan.
But that has not stopped the establishment from dishing out Peranakan fare since 1953, thanks to its founder Yap Chee Kwee, who used to work as a housekeeper for a Peranakan family. He honed his skills and eventually set up a stall in Joo Chiat Road, from which he would cater for birthdays and weddings on the side.
The business has always remained in Joo Chiat, moving 10 years ago to its current location in Joo Chiat Place.
It is now run by third-generation owner Jenny Yap, 53, whose husband Raymond, 57, is one of the chefs. He was trained by her father Yap Kow Soon, the founder’s son.
Her eldest sister runs Straits Chinese Restaurant at Keck Seng Tower and her youngest brother runs Straits Chinese Nonya Restaurant in Craig Road.
Mr Yap, though semi-retired, is still very much involved in planning the menu for the Nonya outlet and hopes to reintroduce old dishes that have been lost over time.
He credits 2008 television drama The Little Nyonya for the revival in interest for Peranakan food and says: “We have to keep the standards up. Everything is cooked with fresh ingredients, diners can tell the difference. Recipes have never changed and remain traditional.”
Ms Yap says: “Many of our regulars have eaten our food from when they were children, and now they bring their children. We have never done any advertising, just relied on word of mouth.”
The recent surprise visit of American actress Brie Larson, who was in town to promote the new Captain Marvel film, put the spotlight on the restaurant as she featured its food in her Instagram stories.
When asked about it, Ms Yap beams and says she is proud that Larson enjoyed and finished the food served.
Calling it a “miracle” that the brand has survived for 66 years, she says the secret is generosity.
“We never stint on the rempah.”
• To buy Delicious Heirlooms, go to stbooks.sg
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