Category Archives: Singapore

Crazy Rich Food + Reflections

This weekend is the opening weekend of Crazy Rich Asians, the film based on the bestselling book of the same name by Kevin Kwan. And while many of the articles for the film focus on its importance in Asian American representation in Hollywood or the cultural conflict of the plot between traditional class hierarchies amongst rich Chinese versus “rags to middle class riches” Chinese Americans, I, of course, want to write about the food mentioned in the books and movies. In the book series there are liberal mentions of various places that the exorbitantly rich of Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai dine in, which does include places open to the public and are relatively affordable. Below you can find a few of those places found in the film and/or books in Singapore and Hong Kong and my thoughts on them (if I have been). Be aware, there will be some spoilers of the movie and/or books below.

[Following that you’ll find my reflections of the movie].

Singapore:

Newton Food Centre – After Araminta and Colin pick up Nick and Rachel up they head to Newton Food Centre where they order from different stalls specializing in their own dishes. I’ve never eaten at Newton Food Centre but in the scene you can see the foursome chow on various Singaporean dishes like Satay at TKR Satay, Oyster Omelette at Hup Kee Fried Oyster Omelette, and ice kachang at 88 San Ren Cold and Hot Dessert. For reference, in the book they actually go to another hawker centre, Lau Pa Sat, though Nick prefers the satay at Newton.

Hong Kong:

Roast Goose Rice and Tong Choy at Yat Lok

Roast Goose Rice and Tong Choy at Yat Lok

Yung Kee – In the books, Yung Kee is described as the place where the uber rich go dine on roast goose. And while the refined trappings of the restaurant remain intact, a family feud a few years ago led to a split. The better Kam family roast goose now lies at Kam’s Roast Goose in Wan Chai (in decidedly less upscale digs) which also racks up a Michelin star, unlike Yung Kee. Although Kam’s Roast Goose is fantastic, I do have a preference for Yat Lok (also a Michelin star earner) in Central.

Fook Lam Moon – Although I don’t recall this so-called “Tycoon’s Canteen” being in the books, it was mentioned by Kevin Kwan as a place where old money still eats. And honestly my one visit to their TST location showed perfectly why, and it’s not because of their food (which is good but not mind blowing spectacular). It’s because of their service, where they have a number of private rooms, a multitude of wait staff to refill your tea cups so you never have to, and even nice small shelves so your bags never, ever touch the ground (or hang over your seat). Reservations are probably required but it’s not too hard to make one online.

Dim sum at Lung King Heen

Dim sum at Lung King Heen

Lung King Heen – In the book when Rachel is at the bachelorette party on Samsara Island, Kitty and Alistair are purportedly seen at this three Michelin star restaurant, the first (but now not only) three Michelin star Chinese restaurant in the world. The food might not be the most innovative compared to other high end Cantonese restaurants in Hong Kong, but the dishes are well executed. Like most higher end Cantonese restaurants, the cheaper option is to eat the dim sum ate lunch (which even for 2 people will probably set you back around $40 USD). Advanced reservations of a month or two are advised.

REFLECTIONS

And now to my reflections on the film. Of course, there’s many things I could say about the movie, but I want to focus on how particular parts of the movie affected me. Like Love, Simon, Crazy Rich Asians was an important movie in terms of its cultural impact as a romantic comedy to me. While neither obviously hewed super close to my experience, both movies were well made movies based on reader adored books (of which I read both books before either were movies) that hopefully launch a number of other movies beyond the straight, white upper middle class narrow confines of the vast majority of major studio romantic comedies of the past.

Crazy Rich Asians itself resonated with me loudly in no small part because Kevin Kwan wrote the book for and in the perspective of the Asian American experience, especially those like me who are Millennial children of immigrants. The impetus to root for Rachel is because Rachel is like many of us, children of Asian immigrants that moved to the United States with immense sacrifice to hopefully provide opportunity for their children. (To be clear that’s not the entire Asian American experience which also includes refugees of war as well as those whose families had means to send their Baby Boomer and Gen X children to colleges in the US and Canada)

As such, what Rachel deals with in her trip to Singapore to meet Nick’s family and childhood social circle, she, like us, have a very fish out of water experience when visiting the Asian motherland. There are customs and traditions, regardless of your class or ethnicity (though in the Crazy Rich Asian series, accentuated by class) that are generally known but not quite fully experienced until you visit your ancestral home (or in Rachel’s case, a nation where the majority of folks are Chinese like herself). And in those moments many Asian Americans realize that you’re not quite [Asian ethnicity] enough, but similarly you’re not quite “American enough” for non-Asian, especially white folks, at home.

This is crystalized in 2 of the most powerful scenes of the movie: the dumpling making scene and the mahjong scene [major spoilers ahead].  In the dumpling making scene, Rachel makes dumplings for the rehearsal dinner along with a couple of Nick’s cousins, Nick’s aunts, and Nick’s mom. There’s visible tension between Rachel and Nick’s mom, Eleanor, which comes up to a head when Eleanor catches Rachel as Rachel is lost finding a restroom. The end of the conversation, after Eleanor regales Rachel on how she wasn’t seen as good enough to marry Nick’s dad, hits with a sting when Eleanor, played by the incomparable Michelle Yeoh, tells Rachel that she will never be good enough.

“You will never be good enough” is a phrase that serves both the plot narrative and a line that touches like a cattle prod to Asian Americans like myself. On one side, people like me are told by our Asian immigrant family and family (or people in general) living in Asia that we will never be good enough to meet expectations, including language fluency and respect for ancestral cultural norms. We are, in effect, too American. But then outside of Asian American enclaves at work or school where we try to fit in, we are criticized for having an accent (even if we might not have one – in which case we’re praised for having “surprisingly good English”), eating gross looking or stinky food (which then get popularized a decade later by white chefs that “discover” it), accused of eating cats or dogs (when we don’t), or exoticized for real or assumed body features and sexual desires. It may not be as pointed and direct as what our family members or those in our ancestral lands would say to us, but the effect is the same, we’re too Asian to be an American. It’s a dual hit for Asian Americans like myself who try to bridge our identities and be proud of these different identities, but are told that we aren’t good enough for either.

But as much as those words in the dumpling scene hurt (and when I shed a few tears on my second watch), the mahjong scene near the end turns the table and shows how Asian Americans can have agency and a potential to use perceived weaknesses into strengths. In that scene, Rachel invites Eleanor to play mahjong where they have a pointed conversation about family and cultural compatibility vs. following your heart. What Eleanor doesn’t know, but Rachel soon reveals is that she rejected Nick’s engagement knowing that what Eleanor thinks is a winning hand (marrying Nick) is not one at all and in Nick’s current situation it would be lose-lose. So Rachel chose for him and shows the strength and power of Asian Americans. Rachel then leaves, revealing that she would have had a winning hand but knowingly gave it away to Eleanor (which you can read more in AngryAsianMan’s excellent primer on the scene). The scene shows that Asian Americans like myself actually do understand and respect both the Asian cultural traditions of familial piety and American cultural understandings of individualism and freedom to follow your passions. But the choice isn’t either or; by understanding both cultures you can make your own decisions and not be boxed into one way of doing things.

The movie isn’t perfect by all means, but the books and the movies are so emotional and powerful for Asian Americans who have experiences like myself because it’s one of the first stories we’ve read and seen on the screen that reflects our dual cultural experience. It’s not a story by and for the people (especially the fantastically rich) of Singapore. It’s not a story even for immigrants like my parents who do live in the US now but their major cultural upbringing was from where they were born (who I’m sure will like most of the story anyway, if my aunt is any indication). It’s a story by and for Asian Americans, like Rachel, born and raised in America.

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Singapore Continued: Char Kway Teow and Kaya Toast

While my previous post may have suggested that all my meals in Singapore were just plates of chicken rice, that wasn’t quite the case. As iconic as chicken rice is, there is far more to Singaporean cuisine with its rich culinary history blending the cuisines of its predominantly Malay, Chinese, and Indian populations. So in addition to chicken rice, I definitely ate a few plates of 2 other celebrated dishes in Singapore: kaya toast and char kway teow.

Kaya Toast

Kaya toast is a fairly typical breakfast in Singapore, though in many places it’s available all day long, usually with a cup of kopi (coffee) or teh (milk tea). Kaya toast is made of bread that is slathered with kaya jam (made of coconut milk, pandan leaf, eggs, and sugar) and butter. It’s traditional to also dip the pieces of toast into a bowl of soft poached egg to provide a bite that is simultaneously sweet and crunchy but also savory and gooey. And while I was in Singapore, I had the privilege to taste a few different versions of kaya toast at the following places:

五十年代 (Chinatown Complex Stall 02-048) – Tucked in the labyrinth of the Chinatown Complex is this “1950’s” style stall serving kopi and kaya toast. Being a fan of milk tea, I decided to get the tea and kaya toast. The tea was very nice with a good balance of strong tea flavor and creaminess of the condensed milk. I still prefer the very similar Hong Kong style milk tea, but it is very similar. As for the kaya toast, it was simple but heavenly. The kaya jam was slathered evenly and the butter melted through to create a very rich, sweet taste the balanced nicely with the perfectly toasted bread.

Rasapura Masters (Marina Bay Sands) – Later that day after an afternoon at the Gardens by the Bay, my friend and I took advantage of the air conditioning at the Marina Bay Sands. We ventured to Rasapura Masters, a high end mall version of a “hawker center” (similar to a Food Republic). Seeing that I wasn’t that hungry, but wanted more caffeine, I went to the stall for kaya toast and ordered a set. As expected for a high end mall wannabe hawker center, it was not only the most expensive kaya toast, but also the least tasty. The kaya jam was less sweet and the bread was definitely soft and not toasted much, if at all. Worst of all, there was a thick slab of butter that was served too cold so it was just this thin solid slab of butter in the middle that made the flavor uneven.

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Ya Kun Kaya Toast (Bugis Junction) – On my last day of Singapore, my friend and I took a final pit stop at the well regarded Ya Kun chain. While I knew that it’s a franchise, this was probably in the middle of the two other kaya toasts in terms of quality (which may be due to poorer standards at this particular location). The bread was toasted, but not quite as warm and crunchy. This meant that while the jam was tasty, the butter didn’t quite melt all the way through meaning a very uneven flavor. The tea was pretty good though.

All in all, of the few places I tried,五十年代 was certainly the best.

Char Kway Teow

Aside from kaya toast, I also ate a couple examples of another classic Singaporean / Malay of Chinese descent dish: char kway teow. Char kway teow, for those unfamiliar, is a dish of flat rice noodles, chives, eggs, onions, garlic, dark soy sauce, and seafood (in the case of Singapore: cockles). While the rich seafood taste makes the taste fundamentally different, the dish’s basic aspects are similar to the Cantonese stir fried beef rice noodles. I’ve had the dish a couple of times in the United States, but was curious to see how a truly authentic version of this dish tasted. Even in my limited time, I was fortunate enough to try two versions of the dish:

 

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Tiong Bahru Fried Kway Teow (Tiong Bahru Food Centre Stall #02-11) – They literally serve only 1 dish at this stall and your choices is essentially whether you want the $3 SGD “small” plate or the $4 SGD larger plate. I opted for a small plate as it was my second bite of food that lunch after a plate of chicken rice. I waited about 10-15 minutes in line and got the nice plate you can see above. After sitting down, I basically inhaled the dish because it was just that good. The noodles and other ingredients had a nice “wok hey” being slightly crisp and not too oily. The cockles, while not being my favorite seafood, provided a nice chewy texture to balance the soft bites. The slivers of bean sprouts countered with a nice crunch and all of it together was heavenly.

Food Opera (Ion Orchard) – While Tiong Bahru’s char kway teow is simple and utilitarian, the one at Food Opera was a bit fancier. First, it’s lay atop a dried pandan leaf as if the days when pandan leaves were the dishware of choice was glamorous. Then it’s got a potpurri of various seafood items that make it seem more luxurious. In terms of flavor it’s got a little too much egg and doesn’t quite get that slightly charred wok hey as Tiong Bahru, but it’s still pretty solid.

And that’s a wrap for Singapore, by far the best city in the world in terms of value ratio of flavor to money spent.

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Chowing on Chicken Rice in Singapore

Hainanese Chicken Rice is considered the national dish of Singapore for good reason. You can find the dish anywhere, it’s cheap, and even the worst renditions you might find are still pretty tasty. And, of course, there is history behind the dish. While the dish is practically synonymous with Singapore, it does have roots in a style of chicken preparation from Hainan that was spread and then adapted when a substantial diaspora of Hainanese people immigrated to Singapore.

Given its vaunted status and my fondness for the dish, be it in Cantonese, Thai, or Malaysian form at restaurants in the US, I had to eat some chicken rice when I went on my recent vacation to Singapore. Thus, in just 3.25 ish total days in the Lion City I ate my way through 5 different chicken rice dishes. This is obviously just a small sampling of the amount of chicken rice available in the city-state, but enough that I can give a decent review on this blog and determine the best I have eaten (so far). 

So without further ado, here are the 5 different chicken rices I had in Singapore and my thoughts on them:

Chicken Rice at Lao Wang Chicken Rice

Chicken Rice at Lao Wang Chicken Rice

  • Lao Wang Chicken Rice (Chinatown Complex; stall 02-113) – First up was Lao Wang in the massive Chinatown Complex hawker centre. To be completely honest, I went to Chinatown Complex to try to get a taste of Liao Fan’s Michelin-starred soy sauce chicken. However, they were closed and thus I got to try my first plate of Hainanese chicken rice at Lao Wang. The rice was fragrant and full of the poached chicken stock while the chicken was tender and flavorful. However, the one thing that was off for me was the gelatinized fat underneath the skin that gave a slightly off taste and texture. While I understand it is procedure to bathe the chicken in ice after poaching (to presumably stop it from overcooking and separate the skin from the meat), the chicken was, perhaps, a little too chilled.
Chicken Rice at Tiong Bahru Boneless Chicken Rice

Chicken Rice at Hainanese Tiong Bahru Boneless Chicken Rice

  • Tiong Bahru Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice (Tiong Bahru Plaza; stall 02-82) – Next was Tiong Bahru’s hawker centre (Tiong Bahru turned out to be my favorite neighborhood on the trip). I went to the Michelin Bib Gourmand recommended stall near the plaza entrance. The chicken was subtler in flavor and a little chewy, but I did like how it was light and not greasy. This, however, did lead to a less flavorful rice which was disappointing. All in all, it was pretty good and I could definitely see why Michelin recommended it, especially for $3.50 a plate. However, I hadn’t had the perfect chicken rice just yet…
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Chicken Rice at Tian Tian Chicken Rice

  • Tian Tian Chicken Rice (Maxwell Food Centre, stall 01-10/11) – After returning from a brief day trip in Hong Kong my friend and I went to the Maxwell Food Centre, homed to the famed Tian Tian Chicken Rice stall, listed as the best chicken rice in many, many chicken rice articles and recommendations. So I sauntered to the long line and waited 20 minutes until I got to the front of the stall and pay $5.50 SGD for my plate of chicken rice (by far my most expensive chicken rice, but I suppose they have to pay rent for two stalls). A couple minutes after paying, I received my tray of chicken rice and scurried to my table to eat it. I must admit, that first bite of rice was heavenly. The rice was so fragrant with the rice aroma of the chicken stock and a hint of garlic that I felt like my brain hit instant euphoria. However, I’ll also admit that the chicken itself was just okay. It was juicy and flavorful, but also a little bit chewy which perhaps meant being slightly overcooked. Though, in fairness, I’ll also add that their chilli dipping sauce was the best.
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Chicken Rice at Ah Tai Hainanese Chicken Rice

  • Ah Tai Hainanese Chicken Rice (Maxwell Food Centre, stall 01-07) – Not having enough chicken rice for lunch, I decided to make a beeline to Ah Tai Hainanese Chicken Rice, which was started by a former Tian Tian chef that was sacked a few years ago. While they did not have the precise chicken rice plate I wanted, I got the chicken rice set which seemed close enough. For $5 SGD you get a plate of rice on the side with chicken and veggies on a plate together than the chicken on top of the rice. And after eating a bite of the chicken, I knew I had found my chicken winner. It was tender and succulent, with the tanginess of the chicken fat gravy on top punching this extra level of umami that was just amazing. The rice wasn’t as flavorful as Tian Tian but it had just enough chicken flavor and fat that it was a pretty close second. The chilli sauce here was a little thicker and spicier than Tian Tian, so while it wasn’t as well balanced, it did give a nice heat to help enhance and cut a little of the saltiness.
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Chicken Rice on JAL

  • Japan Airlines Economy Class (SIN-HND on JL 36) – On my flight back home via Tokyo I got a surprise extra meal of chicken rice as part of Japan Airlines’ celebration of 40 years of service to Singapore. While the chicken was pretty tender and juicy, suffice to say that it paled in comparison to most of the chicken rice I had in Singapore. The rice definitely wasn’t as flavorful and you didn’t quite get that tender skin and fat that you would get on the ground. Nonetheless, it was fairly excellent for airplane food so I’ll still give Japan Airlines A+ for effort and execution.

All in all my favorite chicken rice goes to Ah Tai Hainanese Chicken Rice. Honestly the most ideal is to get the rice and chilli sauce at Tian Tian and walk over to Ah Tai for their chicken and broth. That said, it’s a bit of a hassle to do that given the possible waits at both stalls. So when push comes to shove I would chose Ah Tai. While the rice itself might be the most important factor of the dish, Ah Tai’s overall marks with its tender chicken and decent rice barely nudge it on top of Tian Tian.

That said, I have not nearly tried enough chicken rice in Singapore so I look forward to more meals of the renown dish the next time in back. Perhaps after the next trip I’ll be just as opinionated about chicken rice in Singapore as I am of dim sum in Hong Kong.

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