Tan Hsueh Yun Food Editor recommends

Food Picks: Pistachio Middle Eastern & Mediterranean Grill, Madam Liew's Recipes

Harissa, the Middle Eastern chilli paste
Harissa, the Middle Eastern chilli pasteST PHOTOS: TAN HSUEH YUN
Moroccan Couscous Royale ($38, serves two)
Moroccan Couscous Royale ($38, serves two)ST PHOTOS: TAN HSUEH YUN
Laksa Goreng ($3.50)
Laksa Goreng ($3.50)ST PHOTOS: TAN HSUEH YUN

NUANCED CHILLI PASTE

What is a chilli coward like me doing, eating harissa, the Middle Eastern chilli paste, right off the spoon? I cannot get enough of this condiment, made in-house at Pistachio, a restaurant in Zhongshan Mall.

It sings brightly of preserved lemons, which balance out the heat. So many versions I have had are just all burn, no subtlety. This nuanced condiment is a small part of my meal, but it is the one I remember long after.

I mix some in with the Moroccan Couscous Royale ($38, serves two) it is supposed to complement, making an already good dish even better. Smear some on the housemade Merguez sausage that comes with the couscous, and that is heaven in a forkful.

Wedged into a corner and sitting cheek by jowl with a toast and kopi store, this restaurant in a Balestier Road mall seems an unlikely place for good Middle Eastern food, but it has already built a following.

For one thing, Pistachio makes terrific pita bread ($4), which is 40cm long. Cooked on a hot stone in the oven until it puffs up, the bread looks stunning and tastes even better. I break off pieces and dip them in the eggplant dip Baba Ghannoush ($8) - garlicky, smoky and with just a hint of sweetness from the pomegranate arils on top.

Red Snapper Fillet Marrakech ($28) is marinated in chermoula, a North African fresh herb and spice sauce, and arrives beautifully flaky. The aromatic basmati rice served alongside is a low glycemic index version from the Himalayas, says chef Khaled Elelimi, who runs the restaurant.

The 49-year-old, who has worked at, among other places, the Four Seasons Maldives and the Shangri-La here, makes much of what he serves in-house. The harissa alone takes more than six months. It starts with the making of preserved lemons, which takes 15 days, before it is ground with chillies and spices, and the resulting paste sits, vacuum packed for six months, developing flavour.

His attention to detail pays off big time.

For dessert, I go with Um Ali ($16), an Egyptian pudding made with pastry, nuts and flakes of coconut and baked with cream. I expect it to be very sweet, but it is not. That allows flavour from the crisp coconut and the nuts to come through. Turkish coffee ($6.50) ensures I am not in a food coma for the rest of the day.

WHERE: Pistachio Middle Eastern & Mediterranean Grill, 01-15 Zhongshan Mall, 20 Ah Hood Road MRT: Novena TEL: 6262-6400 OPEN: 11.30am to 2.30pm, 5.30 to 9pm daily INFO: www.pistachiogrill.com/


AROMATIC LAKSA

For years, Madam Liew Kiaw Hoon's killer recipe for laksa was the stuff of legend among her extended family, kampung neighbours and her children's friends.

Now, anyone can sample a bowl of that laksa at Madam Liew's Recipes, a stall in an East Coast Road coffee shop right next to Siglap Centre. Her son Leslie Chua, 52, runs the stall with help from his sisters.

When he opened at the end of June, there was just one dish on the menu - laksa ($4.80).

The gravy for Madam Liew's version is aromatic with spice. That rempah is what makes her laksa unique. While other versions are heavy with dried shrimp (never a bad thing in my book), her rempah allows the spices to shine instead. The gravy is not overwhelmed by the dried shrimp or too much coconut milk.

Sliced fish cake, cockles and perfectly cooked prawns top the noodles. A dollop of sambal adds just the right amount of heat. If you prefer laksa unfiltered, go for Laksa Goreng ($3.50), added to the menu early last month. The rempah is fried with the noodles and there is no distraction from liquid or coconut milk. Squeeze calamansi lime into the noodles to give it zing.

Madam Liew, an 87-year-old mother of eight, by all accounts hale and hearty, has other recipes in her arsenal - for popiah and chicken curry, among others. If they are as good as the laksa, I would happily trek to Siglap regularly, first checking on Facebook that the stall, which does not have a regular day off, is open.

WHERE: Madam Liew's Recipes, 727 East Coast Road, 3838 Eating Place MRT: Kembangan OPEN: 8.30am to 4pm daily (check Facebook for days when the stall is closed) INFO: www.facebook.com/mdmliewsrecipes

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2018, with the headline 'Food Picks'. Print Edition | Subscribe