HAKKA LABOUR OF LOVE
I have been haunting the back alley of Penhas Road recently, waiting outside a door for people to emerge with plain white paper bags.
In them are boxes from Pang's Hakka Delicacies, a new business by pastry chef Pang Kok Keong to celebrate the rich food culture of the dialect group he belongs to.
The food is old school but everything else is of the moment. You order via WhatsApp and check social media for new offerings. Collect at the back alley of his main business, the cake temple Antoinette.
For starters, he is offering Abacus Seeds ($8 for a 250g serving, $30 for a 1kg serving, above), a quintessential Hakka dish of yam dumplings fried with dried shrimps, dried cuttlefish, leeks, garlic, black fungus, dried mushrooms, minced pork, lots of aromatic fried shallots and Chinese parsley, which provides fresh, vibrant sparks of flavour.
I have had two versions of the dish and the difference is in the texture of the dumplings. The first version was more chewy and the second one, which I preferred, was softer and more springy. That texture came about by happy accident, and I hope chef Pang sticks to it, despite the fact that it takes more work.
It pays to check the Facebook page for Pang's Hakka Delicacies because that is how I found out that I could order Hakka Leek Kueh ($12 for a box of six) for a limited time, including this weekend. Do not hesitate. They look like soon kueh but are filled with minced Chinese leeks, dried shrimps and little cubes of fried tau kwa (firm beancurd). Stretchy skin and the umami-packed filling make for a satisfying snack.
I am not Hakka, but I appreciate the soulfulness of these classics. This is the sort of food I hanker for, the sort that is so hard to find outside of home kitchens.
Imagine all the work that goes into it. Shaping the abacus seeds by hand, finely shredding the black fungus, cubing and frying the tau kwa.
So much love goes into snacks I polish off in a flash.
So, yes, aside from developing ripping arm muscles from frying 10kg of abacus seeds at a time, he has also earned my admiration.
In a Facebook post, he asks if he has made the right career decision.
WHERE: Pang's Hakka Delicacies, collection at the back alley of 30 Penhas Road MRT: Lavender ORDERS: Send a message via WhatsApp to 9021-7507 at least one day in advance PICK UP: 11am to 1pm, 5 to 7pm INFO: www.facebook.com/hakkapang/
MALAY CHWEE KUEH SO SEDAP
With a name like 88 Katong Laksa, you would think the best dish at this hawker stall would be, well, laksa. But it isn't. Neither are the stall's other offerings.
The best thing to order is Malay Chwee Kueh ($2.20 for five). This curious snack makes the best of the ingredients the stall already uses for its other offerings. Slices of rice cake are laid on a plate and topped with sambal and serunding.
Although I am pretty sure the stall does not make its own rice cakes, it must have a good supplier because these are so very soft. The sambal and spiced coconut toppings are pretty much perfect accompaniments.
What an inspired offering.
WHERE: 88 Katong Laksa, 02-64 Commonwealth Crescent Market & Food Centre, 31 Commonwealth Crescent MRT: Commonwealth OPEN: 6.30am to 3pm (Tuesdays to Sundays), closed on Mondays
WILD ROCKET'S EVOLVING MENU
It is a fact of life that if you are a chef or restaurateur in Singapore, you cannot afford to stop moving forward. Stay still for too long and you risk becoming irrelevant or the restaurant falls off the radar.
Thirteen-year-old Wild Rocket has not stopped moving. I still remember the opening menu, so very basic, with one dish cribbed from a Gordon Ramsay cookbook.
Chef Willin Low's food has been evolving and he has been cooking with more and more confidence over the years. He has a knack for taking familiar local flavours and elevating them in surprising ways.
But a diner used to be spoilt for choice. There was an a la carte menu, set lunches and dinners and the adventurous omakase meals. For a spell, there were pasta offerings.
All of that has been streamlined and diners now choose five courses ($82++), seven courses ($98++) or nine courses ($128++) from a menu of dishes that Low is most proud of and which represent where the restaurant is at now.
Whatever you go with, I hope your meal starts with an amuse called Cheesy Curry Bomb, a deep fried ravioli filled with housemade curry sauce and mozzarella cheese. It hits the spot right away.
I have had the entire menu and I would pick the little disk of prata topped with negitoro spiked with fish sauce, and caviar, for the cold starter because the textures - soft, crisp, pop, pop, pop - go perfectly together.
Both the warm starters are good but the mushroom ravioli with bak kut teh consomme is more comforting.
From the pasta section, pick the buah keluak beef ravioli with ginger and spring onion sauce. I wish there were more ravioli because the filling is so satisfying. Sweep the ginger and scallion off the pasta before proceeding - they distract from the intensity of the buah keluak.
If you love vinegared pig trotters as much as I do, order the black vinegar Iberico pork jowl inspired by ter kah chor. I love how the chef does not shy away from tart flavours. The garnish of suan cai or tangy pickled napa cabbage strips lifts the rich dish, and the vinegar jelly draped over the meat is a delightful contrast of sweet and tart too.
For dessert, get the orh nee with pumpkin-persimmon ice cream and candied lard. Ah, that lard brittle. I could eat a mountain of it. Kudos to chef Low for daring to use lard.
WHERE: Wild Rocket, 10A Upper Wilkie Road MRT: Dhoby Ghaut TEL: 6339-9448 OPEN: Lunch: noon to 3pm (Tuesdays to Saturdays); dinner: 6.30 to 11pm (Mondays to Saturdays)
ROAST MEAT TO OBSESS OVER
The best way to get rid of a food obsession is to do a taste test.
In 2012, I ate at 10 roast meat stalls in two days for a story and that cured me of any longing for roast duck, roast pork and char siew. Sure, I would eat them if I had to and I am partial to Fatty Cheong's fatty char siew, but I just do not seek these stalls out.
That changed when I had lunch at Hong Kong 88 Roast Meat Specialist, which two friends were raving about.
The smart diner will order a combo platter of roast duck, roast pork and char siew ($8.50 for a one-person serving). The siew yoke (left) here stands out. The crackling is light as air, while the meat stays juicy. The magic dies if you do a takeaway, however. The meat toughens up.
Just as good is the roast duck. The skin at 88's is not as crisp as I would like, but there is deep flavour in the meat.
Ask what the secret is and the response is: the ducks. They are trucked in live from Malaysia and slaughtered in a facility in Defu Lane, not left languishing dead for two or three days before roasting.
If you do not like your char siew sweet, you will love this version. It works for me because of the charred edges. Ask for the fatty cuts; you will be glad you did.
Customers can help themselves to two types of chilli sauces. I prefer the one that resembles chicken rice chilli. It is thicker than the watered-down versions served at many chicken rice stalls and has plenty of punch.
88 is opening a larger outlet in Tanjong Pagar, with new offerings such as salty char siew and roast pig.
I cannot wait to try them all.
My obsession is back with a vengeance.
WHERE: Hong Kong 88 Roast Meat Specialist, 153 Tyrwhitt Road MRT: Bendemeer OPEN: 11am to 7.30pm daily