Foodie Confidential With Wong Ah Yoke

No gimmicks, just real food for Sebastian Tan

Actor Sebastian Tan has been around the world, but likes delicious local dishes without the gimmicks

Sebastian Tan celebrates his 10th year as Broadway Beng, a character he created for a cabaret show, this month.

To mark the occasion, he is putting on the Broadway Beng: 10th Anniversary Concert at Capitol Theatre until July 31.

The idea for the character started more than a decade ago, while the bachelor was in Langkawi with a group of other actors including Selena Tan, who started theatre production company Dream Academy.

"I told them my life story which I thought was tragic, but they thought it was funny," he says. "And Selena started talking about doing a one-man show for me."

Among his "tragic" episodes was how he broke his arm when he was six and it was never fixed properly.

"I was treated by two sinsehs who broke it further," he says.

  • WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?

  • Where do I start? It’d have to be an international buffet because I like everything from Japanese to English roast to zi char. And my mother’s dishes too.

In the end, he was given a choice of either leaving the arm locked permanently in a 90-degree angle or flexible but with a bone protrusion near the elbow. He chose the latter.

The 43-year-old jokes: "If my arm can't move, what can I do? Play guitar? Dance waltz?"

Besides work, the self-confessed foodie loves to travel around the island for his favourite eats.

What is your favourite food?

I love seafood and Singaporean food. I think Singapore is the best place to eat because you can't beat the variety of food here. I've been around the world, kind of, but there's no place like Singapore. It's a melting pot of all kinds of food - South-east Asian, Eastern, Western - and they're good.

Do you prefer restaurant or hawker food?

I'm more a zi char person, but I do like a good steak and go to chi chi restaurants sometimes.

But I don't like molecular gastronomy. I like to see my food whole where a chicken is a chicken and meat is meat. I don't like to see bubbles and foam.

You know restaurants that ask: "Can you smell nasi lemak or not?" Give me a packet of nasi lemak, don't ask me to feel it. Or smell it. Those kinds of gastronomy, I'm not into.

Where did you try molecular gastronomy?

It was at Aurum in Clarke Quay, which has closed down. I thought it was pretentious.

A friend told me about Bo Innovation in Hong Kong, but I didn't go there. I don't like gimmicks, just give me old-fashioned, delicious food.

Which zi char places do you like?

I recently went to Hoy Yong Seafood in a coffee shop in Clementi Avenue 2. I was introduced to it by actress Denise Tan, who swears by it. The chef there is the disciple of one of the Four Heavenly Kings of Singapore cooking.

I like the deep-fried big intestines, petai, prawn roll, mei cai kong bak bao (preserved vegetable pork belly bun) and claypot pig liver. The fried hor fun is good too, it has a lot of egg in it. The stall offers two kinds of fish head dishes, assam and curry. The curry is better.

I go to JB Ah Meng in Geylang for its white pepper crab and the flattened, very thin fried beehoon. I also like the very lemak curry fish head there.

How about restaurants?

I recently dined at Crystal Jade Dining In at Vivocity. It was a treat from my uncle and we had shark's fin in chicken broth that was thick and creamy.

I also like Mikuni, the Japanese restaurant at Fairmont hotel. It's very good, but also very expensive. I go for the set lunches, the bento boxes, which are cheaper than what you pay at dinner.

Shami Banana Leaf Delights Restaurant in Sembawang is very good for the mutton rendang on the bone.

When my father was alive, my family would go to his favourite restaurant, Beng Thin Hoon Kee, in OCBC Building. We would order kong bak bao, stir-fried tanghoon, yam ring and Hokkien mee.

Which is your favourite food destination?

I like sea cucumber and go to Vietnam to buy dried sea cucumber from a wholesale market in Ho Chi Minh City.

I don't go to the popular Ben Thanh market in the city centre, but to Binh Tay market, which is about 20 minutes away by taxi. There's a stall that sells dried scallops, shark's fin, bird's nest and sea cucumber.

I buy 2 to 3kg of sea cucumber and deep-fried fish maw each time. They are half the price of what sellers here charge.

I buy either the local small sea cucumbers or the spiky Japanese ones. My mother, who cooks them, says they are very nice. She prepares them in a stew with oyster sauce, dried oyster, garlic, ginger and soya sauce.

The fish maw comes in grades A to C and I'd buy Grade A, which is the best.

I also buy a few kilograms of "weasel" coffee beans at the market. The seller claims they don't contain additives and are all natural. The coffee aroma is much nicer, even better than the Italian Illy coffee I buy from supermarkets. There is no sour aftertaste. I prepare it the Vietnamese way using the drip method.

Do you have any favourite eateries in Vietnam?

There is a crab restaurant called Quan 94 that has very good fried crab tanghoon. The setting is just like a kopitiam, but the food is so good there is an impostor next to it. Quan 94 is the one on your left nearer the traffic light. Other good dishes are the crab roll, which is packed full of crabmeat, and the crab claw with tamarind sauce.

Another place to eat at is Mitau. It is a boutique restaurant that specialises in Hue cuisine from one of the old dynasties.

For pho bo, I don't mind Pho 2000, where former United States president Bill Clinton went when he visited Vietnam. The kway teow is smooth and silky, and the broth is flavoursome, full of beef goodness.

Where else do you eat at overseas?

In Bangkok's Silom Plaza, amid some touristy Chinese restaurants, is a Thai restaurant called Niyom that is frequented mainly by Thais. I was taken there by a Thai friend. I like it because the food tastes home-cooked. We had dishes cooked with pig trotters and bamboo shoots.

During a visit to Inner Mongolia, we had two whole sheep in two days. My sister-in-law's relative owns a farm on the grassland with more than 1,000 sheep.

One night, we even witnessed the killing of a sheep Mongolian style, which is bloodless. The meat was grilled and boiled, and because it was a year-old lamb and the meat was so fresh, there was no smell.

The next day, we had a roast whole lamb. When I visit my brother, who lives near Stokeon-Trent in Staffordshire, England, we like to go to Miller & Carter for the local lamb or beef dishes. The restaurant is affordable and good.

If you could choose anyone in the world to have a meal with, who would that be?

Meryl Streep, who is my favourite actress. I don't think I'll ever get to meet her, though I'd love to. I'd take her to eat zi char, of course.

• Follow Wong Ah Yoke on Twitter @STahyoke

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 17, 2016, with the headline 'No gimmicks, just real food for this Beng'. Print Edition | Subscribe