LEGIT AT LAST
People here talk very casually about hawkers. When we do that, we're referring to people who operate in hawker or food centres.
Ah Pui, real name Ang Boon Ee, 64, was a hawker in the true sense of the word. He used to ply the streets of Tiong Bahru in his pushcart, selling pork satay. He kept getting busted, of course. This is Singapore after all.
My friends and I would have him grill satay at house parties, and they were always the highlight of our meals. His satay, he only does pork, is nonpareil.
Since August last year, he has joined a group of entrepreneurs who run a cafe in Pearl's Hill Terrace, a laid-back enclave perched on top of a hill. It used to house the operational headquarters of the Singapore Police Force.
One of the people behind the cafe, Mr Benjamin Tan, 38, used to live in Tiong Bahru, and was a regular customer. They became friends and Mr Tan persuaded Mr Ang to join him and his partners.
So now, there is no need for hawking on the streets. Mr Ang has a legit gig.
Is his pork satay still as good?
They are still the best I have ever had. But they are different from what they used to be. The special thing about his pork satay ($9 for 10 sticks), is the strip of fat in between the pieces of meat. He grills it so expertly that the fat has a QQ texture. The pork pieces used to be smaller, so the fat stood out more. Now, there's a bit more pork. It's a chunkier bite, to be sure, and most people will not complain.
I won't either. Not when I dunk the satay into the thick peanut sauce with a big dollop of fresh pineapple puree in the middle. Then crunch, QQ, tartness and spice meld and make magic.
If you are very lucky, you might see Mr Ang tending to the grill himself. Otherwise, he is in the kitchen, prepping satay, cutting pieces of pork off a huge chunk.
I go to the cafe just for the pork satay but am persuaded to try the Pincho Sate Chicken ($9 for 10 sticks), with a very perky chimichurri drizzle. There are pasta dishes on the menu too, done by Mr Sebastian Liu, 37, who used to work for the Les Amis Group. Mr Tan offers an array of Nanyang-style coffee drinks.
Many people talk about preserving hawker culture and lament when stellar hawkers retire. Instead of just talking and lamenting, the people who run the cafe - Mr Tan, Mr Liu, Mr Maurice Goh and Mr Melvin Tay - went and did something about it. They persuaded Mr Ang to join them and in the process, are introducing his pork satay to a new audience.
Plus, fans like me can have this phenomenal pork satay almost anytime we want.
WHAT: 195 Pearl Hill Cafe, 195 Pearl's Hill Terrace, 01-56
OPEN: 11am to 5pm (Monday to Saturday), closed Sunday and public holidays
JOLLY GOOD JOWL
Nothing pleases me more than a piece of pork grilled beautifully. And at Matsukiya, a newish kushiyaki restaurant at The Paragon, the Tontoro Spicy Ramen ($21) is a work of art.
The pig jowl boasts lightly charred fat and a very springy texture. It needs nothing more, but I dab some yuzu kosho on a piece, dip another into a small pile of shichimi togarashi, and shiver with joy. As if all this is not enough, the pork sits on thin, straight ramen done almost bak chor mee style, being tossed with shio kombu, chilli, chicken fat and chicken stock. It is an umami bomb.
The restaurant also has well-priced set lunches. I have the basic $25 one, which comes with an appetiser, soup, pickles, a soft-boiled egg, rice and a choice of three sticks of kushiyaki.
I plumb for chicken thigh, chicken skin and bacon wrapped around cherry tomatoes. All are excellent. Thigh meat is indestructible and the three pieces here are juicy. The restaurant uses a French breed of chicken raised in Johor Baru. The skin is suitably crisp and is perfect with either the shichimi togarashi or yuzu kosho, both of which you can help yourself to at the table or counter. But really, it is the bacon-wrapped cherry tomato that thrills me most, bursting delightfully.
On the day I dine there, the appetiser is the freshest edamame, the pods still on the stem. They are cooked perfectly al dente. The rice is not plain white. It's cooked in dashi with shreds of burdock, and is so aromatic. Burdock is also in the bowl of rich chicken soup that is part of the set.
The restaurant claims that middle ground between high-end and mass market yakitori, and I am determined to go back for dinner. So many delights await me, judging from the a la carte things I try: tebasaki ($5) or chicken wings with phenomenally crisp skin; seseri ($6) boneless chicken neck, so prized in the best yakitori restaurants; and the most glorious tsukune ($5) a ball of chicken chopped not too fine and studded with crunchy cartilage. It is so good I don't want to dip it in the raw egg yolk. But I do. It is even better.
WHAT: Matsukiya, 05-04 Paragon Singapore, 290 Orchard Road
OPEN: 11.30am to 3pm, 6 to 9.30pm daily
Life is too short for bad food. And I often look to friends whose palates I trust to steer me in the direction of food that's worth eating. When two of them rave about Cai's ngoh hiang, well, I just have to try it.
Three siblings - Irwin, Amanda and Charmaine Chua - are behind the business, and they have successfully come up with a recipe that combines the best of the ngoh hiang their grandmothers make. I also love how obsessively neat the finger-sized meat rolls are, and gasp with delight when I open the boxes.
Now, the traditional way is to deep fry the rolls, which are already steamed before being frozen. I cannot bear the thought, so I place them on a foil-lined tray and stick that in my toaster oven. The rolls get beautifully brown that way, and clean-up is a breeze. More importantly, I taste the rolls, not oil.
The Original Pork & Prawn Ngoh Hiang ($25 for 20 rolls) is delicious, and I love how the chunks of water chestnut add texture, and how pungent Chinese celery adds funk. Dip the rolls in Cai's Sambal Belacan ($10 for a 180g jar). It is spicy, but I would like more belacan in it.
The Mala Pork & Prawn Ngoh Hiang ($26 for 20 rolls) needs no sauces. It is perfect eaten with asbestos fingers right out of the toaster oven. That numbing, tingly vibe infuses each roll but they are not blow-your-head-off hot.
Nuance is everything.
WHAT: Cai Ngoh Hiang & Sambal
ORDERING INFO: Go to Instagram, look for @cai.eats, and fill out the online form
DELIVERY: $8 per location, free delivery to one location with minimum order of four boxes of ngoh hiang
THE LIVES OF PIE
Mimi Lee's double-crusted pies have been around since 2001 and I had forgotten how good they were until I had them again recently. In these Covid-19 times, home-based food businesses are springing up like mushrooms after rain and I am glad she has revived her business.
I cannot imagine the work it takes to make shortcrust pastry from scratch but that's the promise you get when you order one of her pies. The pastry is made with French butter too.
Customers can order the pies baked ($0.80 more) or frozen. I get mine frozen and simply brush them with beaten egg before popping them in the oven, still frozen. In 40 minutes, the four golden brown pies are ready.
The best one is the Steak & Guinness Pie ($9.80 frozen), filled with carrots and chunks of beef in a robust gravy. Don't worry, it's not bitter at all. This one is available this month (September) and next month (October). If you eat beef, this is a must-order. The Steak & Mushroom pie ($9 frozen) is good too, don't get me wrong. But the Guinness deepens the flavour of the stew.
Classic Chicken ($8 frozen), filled with boneless chicken leg meat, is easy to like because the meat is not dried out and the creamy gravy is so comforting on a rainy day. The Vegetable pie ($7 frozen) is filled with potato, pumpkin, zucchini and mushroom. I will say, grudgingly, that is is much better than I expect it to be.
One thing very worth noting is this: Ms Lee's pies are double crusted but do not suffer that ultimate horror - the soggy bottom.
WHAT: Mim's Fabulous Pies
ORDERING INFO: Go to Instagram, look for @mimsfabulouspies, and fill out the online form.
DELIVERY: Charges range from $10 to $25 depending on distance.