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Food In The Hood - The Sunday Times (5-part series)


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The Sunday Times, Life Section (13 February 2022)

 

 

Food In The Hood: 20 eating places to check out in the north of Singapore

 

 

Food in the Hood - Episode 1: The best eats in the north of Singapore

 


SINGAPORE - Truly horrendous meals are hard to find in Singapore. Mediocre food? Sure. Indifferent food? Of course. But the island has a well-deserved reputation for being a place where good food can be found pretty much everywhere.
 

In this new series, The Straits Times Food Team fanned out across the island to curate lists of places worth visiting in each part of Singapore - north, south, east, west and central.
 

The idea is not to tell people living in each region about the gems in their 'hood. Rather, it is to give a list of possibilities for people living in other parts of Singapore, who might find themselves in these areas or be willing to travel for food, since travel overseas is difficult in pandemic times.
 

I am starting off the series exploring the north of Singapore - Admiralty, Kranji, Woodlands, Sembawang, Yishun, Yio Chu Kang, Seletar and Sengkang.
 

Because there are only 20 on the list, the curation has to be tight.

The places that made my list are those I can recommend without hesitation or hedging. It helps that I do not live in the north. When it came time to nail down the 20 places, I picked the ones I'd go back to in a heartbeat.
 

You might wonder about the dearth of "new" places.

I had a list of those to visit but found, to my horror, that many of them had closed. That, to me, is a sign that the appetite for fried porridge is more fierce than for, say, chicken and waffles.
 

The owner of one new cafe I had wanted to include told me he was closing in a month, when I called for more information.
 

There is no point coming up with a list that becomes outdated in a month or two.
 

The other new places I went to turned out competent food. But would I go to Sengkang, Woodlands or Yio Chu Kang to eat at those places? No. No matter how Instagrammable the burgers, waffles or pasta are.
 

Eating for work sounds like a dream job and, for most people, it probably is.
 

The draw, for me at least, is the possibility of finding a gem somewhere or of tucking into something soulful and satisfying.
 

In the north, I discovered a terrific fish soup, although the seafood was not the highlight; a wickedly good dessert I want to have every day, but cannot because my doctors will be up in arms; a coffee-shop stall which fries unthinkable things; and a cool and quirky cafe that was the last place I had expected to find terrific nasi ambeng.
 

After a great briyani meal in Sembawang, I drove down the street, saw a sign for a cafe and decided to stop and check it out. It turned out to be a ghost kitchen sort of set-up. Bummed out and on the way back to the carpark, I passed another briyani restaurant and had to go in. And there, I found Paradise. You will see what I mean.
 

And, yes, I had two briyani meals back to back. Anything for you, dear reader.
 

The chill vibe of the Seletar area is so seductive, I feel my blood pressure going down as I exit the expressway. I cannot think of anything better than morning coffee outdoors at a quirky cafe on the premises of an aviation company.
 

Come explore the north with me - you will not regret it.
 

Good time to use those Community Development Council vouchers, don't you think?

 

 

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1 Char kway teow ticks many boxes
 

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This char kway teow ticks many boxes for the writer.

 

ARMENIAN STREET CHAR KWAY TEOW
Where: Anchorvale 303 Foodcourt, Block 303 Anchorvale Link
Open: 11.30am to 7pm (Fridays to Wednesdays), closed on Thursdays

 

Those of you who wax lyrical about the old, original Armenian Street Char Kway Teow, wow. I am in awe of your taste memory. That char kway teow must surely be your madeleine, your ratatouille.
 

My taste memory does not stretch that far, although I remember eating at that coffee shop on the corner of Armenian and Loke Yew streets after visits to the old National Library. A few years ago, when I heard that the Tan family had opened a stall in Sengkang, I made a beeline there.
 

Then and now, because I cannot claim to remember exactly how the original char kway teow tasted, I have to evaluate it like I would any dish - on its own merits.
 

And this char kway teow (from $3) ticks many boxes for me.
 

It is more savoury than sweet - always a good thing in my book. It has the requisite wok hei, so important for many dishes but for char kway teow especially, because I love the flavour of expertly charred soya sauce lacquered on the rice noodles. Cockles are essential and the stall does not overcook them. I get extra hum for $1 to add to my $4 plate.
 

Hidden among the noodles are lardons, cubes of pork fat. The golden nuggets are mostly crisp, with just a little bit of softness in the areas that come into contact with the wettish noodles.
 

I wonder if they will add cockle juice to the wok if I ask next time. And if I want it a little less wet.
 

Yes, there will be a next time. I do not find it strange to go to Sengkang for char kway teow, especially for such a good version. My other go-tos are at Havelock Road and Zion Riverside Food Centre.
 

Both are easier to get to. But I doubt very much that while queuing, I will get to see the chef, his hands hidden behind a tiled low wall, in frying ecstasy. Seriously. He looks like he is playing air guitar, lost in what many will think is a mundane task.
 

Mundane for others, pull factor for me.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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2 Skillfully cooked fishball noodles
 

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Mee kia dry ($3.30) from Yue Lan Ting Fishball Minced Pork Noodle.


YUE LAN TING FISHBALL MINCED PORK NOODLE
Where: Anchorvale 303 Foodcourt, Block 303 Anchorvale Link
Open: 5am to 1.30pm (closed twice a month, no fixed days)
 

Two stalls in this Sengkang coffee shop draw queues. This stall has a longer queue than the char kway teow one and, of course, I have to join it.
 

When I tuck into my mee kia dry ($3.30), I understand why people wait in line. So much skill has gone into making this bowl.
 

First, the noodles are just under-done and delightfully chewy. As I progress and the noodles sit longer in the bowl, they soften. If they had not been undercooked, they would have turned mushy by the time I am halfway through.
 

Second, the seasonings are punchy - full of oomph and just spicy enough for me. I would like more vinegar, but this is easily fixed next time.
 

Third, the slices of pig liver, although not cut as thickly as I would like, are perfectly cooked. Which is to say the slices are pink in the middle.
 

I spring for three fishballs at $1 to add to my bowl and they have quite a bounce. They are not of the handmade variety, but then I don't expect the earth for $1.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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3 Perfectly tender braised pork
 

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Braised Pork Rice ($3) from Wei Ji Braised Duck.

 

 

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The Duck Rice Set ($3.50) comes with a generous helping of meat, braised egg, tau pok and fish cake, and a tangy chilli dip.


WEI JI BRAISED DUCK

Where: 280 Cafe, 280 Woodlands Industrial Park E5
Open: 6.30am to 1pm (Mondays to Saturdays), closed on Sundays

 

My job takes me places, so when told of a good braised duck stall in Woodlands Industrial Park, I make my way there. Anything for good food.
 

The stall is called Wei Ji Braised Duck, but the offerings I like best have nothing to do with duck.
 

Not that the braised duck is bad. It isn't - the sauce is infused with the flavour of warm spices. I detect cinnamon and star anise. And the Duck Rice Set ($3.50) is not shabby at all. There is a generous helping of meat, braised egg, tau pok and fish cake, and a tangy chilli dip which surprises me with a strong hit of heat.
 

But the stall's Braised Pork Rice ($3) is superb. Pieces of pork belly, braised in an aromatic soya-based sauce, are perfectly tender and the fat is springy. They go well with the sambal served alongside.
 

Even the rice is good. It has the "lup lup" quality - it is not mushy and you can see the individual grains ("lup") of rice.
 

It is a better accompaniment to braised pig offal than the wide sheets of rice noodles in soup, or Kway Chap ($3.50). The soup lacks depth, I feel. But the offal is well worth eating. Large pig intestines, pig skin, tau kwa, tau pok, half an egg and pieces of that pork belly are piled high on the plate. I would totally order a side of rice to go with these offally awesome goodies.

 

 

Edited by sphere

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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4 Minced pork with deep umami
 

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The $9 Seafood Soup from Yan Ji Seafood Soup.


YAN JI SEAFOOD SOUP

Where: 01-26 Marsiling Mall, 4 Woodlands Street 12
Open: 10.30am to 8.45pm (Tuesdays to Sundays), closed on Mondays

 

So I am looking at the lit signboard at Yan Ji Seafood Soup and marvelling at the chutzpah it takes to sell Premium Seafood Soup for $30 and $40 in a hawker centre. There are less pricey variations, of course, - Red Grouper Seafood Soup and Crayfish Seafood Soup from $13. In the end, I go for plain old Seafood Soup, at $7 or $9.
 

For $9, I get three shell-on prawns; slices of generic white fish, you know, some variation of catfish; and the best thing in the bowl, the stall's signature minced pork.
 

The prawns are firm and sweet, but you would expect that. The fish, well, it's nothing to write home about. But the minced pork is just utterly fabulous. It is mixed with a generous amount of toasted dried sole fish, which gives it a deep umami flavour.
 

Later, when I double back to the stall to thank them, I tell the uncle how much I love the pork. He tells me 1kg of dried sole goes into 20kg of minced pork. If you have ever bought good-quality dried sole, you will know it does not come cheap but adds a lot of flavour to everything.
 

The soup, made with pork, prawn and crayfish, is murky. It sounds like a bad thing, but is not. It is robust and very flavourful. The only problem is that it is very salty. But eat it with rice and all is forgiven.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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5 Beef noodles to eat every day
 

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Beef, Tendon & Tripe Noodle ($9) from Beef King By Yassin Kampung


BEEF KING BY YASSIN KAMPUNG

Where: 01-44 Marsiling Mall, 4 Woodlands Street 12
Open: 9.30am to 9pm (Thursdays to Tuesdays), closed on Wednesdays

 

Do you like your beef noodles dry or in soup? I like mine dry, but detest gluggy sauces. So when ordering from a new stall or shop, I just take the safe option and get the soup version.
 

For some reason, I opt for dry noodles at Beef King, a halal beef noodle stall in Marsiling Mall. And, boy, am I glad.
 

The Beef, Tendon & Tripe Noodle ($9) has a thickened sauce, but it is not at all gloopy. It has the right viscosity to coat the thin, stretchy kway teow underneath. Even better, the tripe is cleaned beautifully and delightfully springy. Chunks of gelatinous tendon go down easy. Sometimes, at beef noodle places, the meat is stringy. But the collagen in the pieces of what I think is beef shin keeps the generous chunks juicy.
 

I prefer these chunks of beef to sliced beef over-tenderised with baking soda, which is what some stalls offer.
 

There are two dipping sauces to go with the noodles. A rust-red one with the deep flavour of dried chillies and a bright red one that has tang in spades. The chunks of beef are great with the rust-red dip and the offal sings with the zingy one.
 

Pungent Chinese celery perfumes the noodles and soup, but does not mask the cinnamon and caramel notes in it. I could have a bowl every day.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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6 Multi-textured rosti


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The Snail Pork Sausage Roesti ($10.20) comes with a 150g coil of sausage, a fried egg, a blob of sour cream and mushroom gravy.

 

 

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Owner Ivan Lee opened the stall in 2009, after working for seven years at Marche in The Heeren, where he made rosti.


IVAN'S CARBINA

Where: 01-01 Huo Shi Xuan Coffeeshop, 354A Woodlands Avenue 5
Open: 11am to 9.15pm (Tuesdays to Sundays)

 

Western food stalls in coffee shops and hawker centres tend to have cookie-cutter menus. Chicken chop. Thin pieces of steak with pepper sauce. Pasta. Wet coleslaw. So, it is worth going to Woodlands for made-from-scratch rosti - fried shredded potatoes.
 

At Ivan's Carbina, a stall in a coffee shop located in a multi-storey carpark, you will see large bowls of boiled and peeled potatoes and baskets of raw Russets waiting to be turned into rosti.
 

I think about the work that goes into it. Peeling, boiling and shredding the spuds cannot possibly be fun.
 

Now, I will say that if you are expecting Swiss-style rosti, uniformly crunchy and golden brown, look elsewhere. The rosti here is fried fairly hard, so some parts are browned, some parts charred, some parts soft. It is this mix of textures that I like. Besides, to achieve crunchiness throughout, they would need to fry it with insane amounts of oil. I am not up for that.
 

Owner Ivan Lee opened the stall in 2009, after working for seven years at Marche in The Heeren, where he made rosti. He says he uses about 20kg of spuds a day and more than 60 per cent of his customers order rosti. He fries each one to order in small pans. He even makes his own sour cream, adding lemon juice to whipping cream to sour it.
 

That citrus tang, missing in commercial sour cream, cuts through the richness of the potatoes, fried egg, mushroom gravy and the protein.
 

The Snail Pork Sausage Roesti ($10.20) comes with a 150g coil of sausage, a fried egg, a blob of sour cream and mushroom gravy. It is hearty and delicious, especially when you manage to get all these elements together in a forkful. Open wide.
 

For smaller appetites, get the Cheese Sausage Roesti ($8.50), with snappy skin and a tunnel of cheese running through it.
 

Cheesy Chicken Cutlet Roesti ($10.80) is almost perfect. The large boneless chicken thigh emerges from the fryer with a crunchy armour and spurts juices when I cut it with a knife. My quibble is that it is undersalted, and although the staffer tells me the chicken had been marinated, I don't taste it. So, I am glad I said yes to the "cheese and mayo?" question when ordering. The exuberant squiggles of liquid cheese and mayonnaise make up for the underseasoned chicken.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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7 Ugly delicious gado gado
 

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Warong Lorong Fatimah's Gado Gado ($3.50).


WARONG LORONG FATIMAH

Where: 02-37 Kampung Admiralty Hawker Centre, 676 Woodlands Drive 71
Open: 7am to 7pm (Sundays to Fridays), 7am to 1pm (Saturdays)

 

When I take a bite of Warong Lorong Fatimah's Gado Gado ($3.50), I do a double take.
 

It has a very forward ginger flavour, which is totally unexpected and a good surprise. I say this because the peanut sauce looks pale and uninteresting and I am in despair before taking a bite.
 

Looks are not everything, it would seem.
 

This is a substantial dish for the price and it is available only on weekdays from 3pm.
 

There are many little touches I appreciate. The blanched cabbage is properly drained so it does not sit in a pool of water at the bottom of the plate. The potatoes are cooked right through to the centre. The green beans have a lot of snap. Best of all, the stall is generous with the tempeh. And scattered on top are crisp flower-shaped keropok.
 

So I don't mind that the sauce has been slopped on and it is impossible to take a pretty picture of the dish. File this under ugly delicious.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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8 Silky, chewy tau chiam noodles
 

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Ah Ma Tau Chiam ($4.50) from Ah Ma Mee Sua. Tau chiam noodles are made with soya beans and wheat.


AH MA MEE SUA

Where: 02-21 Kampung Admiralty Hawker Centre, 676 Woodlands Drive 71
Open: 8am to 3pm, 4.30 to 9pm (Mondays to Saturdays), closed on Sundays

 

To call this place a hawker centre would be to undersell it. Kampung Admiralty Hawker Centre is bright and spacious, and some care has been taken in the choice of tables and chairs, and in the sign designs for each stall. This place is like a foodcourt without air-conditioning, with plenty of good food.
 

Ah Ma Mee Sua is a standout here. I am not a fan of mee sua because the rice vermicelli is way too starchy, so I opt for Ah Ma Tau Chiam ($4.50). Tau chiam noodles are made with soya beans and wheat. The ones at Ah Ma are very thin, about the width of mee pok. They are cooked perfectly - silky, slippery and pleasantly chewy.
 

The broth is light but flavourful and, truth be told, it could do with a little more salt. But soon, I am distracted by the two good-sized pork balls, juicy and not too densely packed. There is also a whole dried-then-rehydrated shiitake mushroom, with a bizarre scissor snip down the centre that does not cut through the whole thing. Is that to make the mushroom easier to eat? It is delicious, having soaked up lots of broth. I am also impressed by the slices of pig liver - cut fairly thick and not overcooked.
 

So often, I struggle to find something healthy to eat in a hawker centre. I cannot always settle for fish soup, yong tau foo and steamed egg from the economic rice stalls.
 

Although temptations lurk everywhere in Kampung Admiralty, I know I can have a bowl of clear soup and noodles, and then splurge on kueh lopes drenched in gula melaka for dessert.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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9 Crunchy, fluffy rice
 

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At Sembawang Traditional Claypot Rice, prices for the signature dish starts at $8.80.


SEMBAWANG TRADITIONAL CLAYPOT RICE

Where: 4 Jalan Tampang, tel: 6757-7144
Open: 11am to 10pm daily

 

What is the allure of claypot rice? People have been known to queue and wait hours to eat a good one. My friend's mother has been cooking pot after pot, amassing a collection of claypots to find the perfect one.

It takes skill to cook claypot rice. To get the farn chiew, or crunchy rice, on the bottom and sides of the pot. This part is crucial. Without the farn chiew, it is not really claypot rice.
 

At Sembawang Traditional Claypot Rice, where prices for the signature dish starts at $8.80, I scrape the crunchy rice off the bottom, pile bits of it into the bowl, and the contrast with the fluffy rice from the pot is beautiful. I don't even need the chicken - although the tender, bone-in thighs are well-marinated - the greens or the sliced Chinese sausage.
 

All I need is to find that generous piece of salted fish buried somewhere in the claypot. And break off bits of it to eat with the rice, which I have doctored with dark soya sauce. Crunchy and fluffy. Salty and umami.
 

Keep your chicken and waffles, or whatever faddish food is in at the moment. I'd rather have claypot rice.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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10 Briyani steamed in bamboo
 

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Mutton briyani ($15.90) from Paradise Biryani.


PARADISE BIRYANI

Where: 01-07 Sembawang Cottage, 369 Sembawang Road, tel: 6314-6369
Open: 10.30am to 9.30pm (Tuesdays to Sundays), closed on Mondays

 

The facade of Paradise Biryani looks shiny, which makes me wary. A shiny facade can sometimes hide a dull interior. But I look at the posters on the outside and there is an intriguing photo of Bamboo Biryani.
 

The rice dish is cooked in a regular pot, but in this Kerala restaurant, it is then packed, with the meat, into a bamboo canister and steamed for about 10 minutes before it lands on the table.
 

One of the restaurant's co-owners, Mr Muhammed Manaf, says the canisters are imported from Kerala, where briyani is done this way in one village. There are four variations of the dish - chicken ($13.90) and mutton, beef or prawns ($15.90).
 

When the server pushes the rice out onto a plate, the smell of cardamom and cinnamon fills the air. It is heady. Then I take a spoonful of rice and swoon. Something happens to briyani when it is trapped in bamboo and steamed. Aromas are enhanced. Flavours are more vivid. It is similar to that je ne sais quoi flavour of food wrapped in opeh leaves.
 

I expect the small prawns to be overcooked, but they are not. And they are nestled among a tangle of onions, sweet from slow cooking. Even better is the mutton version I have on a subsequent visit, featuring aromatic, fall-apart meat.
 

By now, you should have cottoned on to how much I love offal. And when I want goat brain done right, I head to Bar.B.Q. Tonight in Little India.
 

Paradise does it just as well. My Brain Pepper Fry ($9.90) is heady from freshly ground black pepper, spices and fresh coriander leaves scattered over the top. The brain is not overcooked either and has a creamy texture.
 

I cannot resist Appam ($3 for two) and it comes with a canister of red jaggery sugar and a little jug of coconut milk. The fermented rice pancakes are great sprinkled with the sugar and dipped in coconut milk. But there are two in each order. So I take the other one, pack it full of brain, fold it over and inhale it.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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11 Briyani to rave about
 

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Boneless Mutton Briyani ($9.50) from Shami Banana Leaf Delights


SHAMI BANANA LEAF DELIGHTS

Where: 349 Sembawang Road, tel: 6754-3898
Open: 10.30am to 9.45pm daily

 

When friends with dependable palates rave about the Boneless Mutton Briyani ($9.50) at Shami Banana Leaf Delights, I go check it out.
 

The meat is excellent - a little saucy, wonderfully aromatic and tender. Coriander leaves on top give it a pop of freshness. It is perfect with the rice, shot through with raw cashews and very plump raisins. I do think the rice could be more aromatic, but I am always going to be eating it with the main protein or a side dish, so that, to me, is not a huge problem.

 

Some places cook vegetables to death, but not Shami. The cabbage I have with my mutton and rice retains its crunch. The Fish Cutlet ($2.80) I add to my meal is perfectly spiced. I have had so many overly salted, overly dense fish cutlets. This one is none of those things.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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12 More than just zi char
 

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Steamed Fish With Preserved Vegetables On Hot Plate from The Famous Kitchen.

 

 

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Crystal Chicken is another must. It looks so plain. It is anything but, says the writer.


THE FAMOUS KITCHEN

Where: 01-01 Hong Heng Mansions, 54 Sembawang Road, tel: 6636-8333
Open: 11.30am to 2.30pm, 5.30 to 10.30pm daily

 

This restaurant has a swankier offshoot, Famous Treasure, at Capitol Piazza in Stamford Road, but I really much prefer the vibe and the food of the original restaurant in Sembawang.
 

For expedience, many people would, I suppose, call the food elevated zi char. But Jeff and Jenny Foo, the siblings who run the restaurant, offer food that is not easily categorised.
 

It is a mix of zi char classics done very well, dishes inspired by food they have had overseas and those their father, who was a chef in a British army cookhouse during colonial times, made.
 

Top on my list of must-order dishes is Marinated Cockles Teochew Style (from $12), the sting of chilli and the bite of garlic whetting my appetite for more.
 

Crystal Chicken ($24 for half) is another must. It looks so plain. It is anything but. The bird has to be a flavourful one, because nothing much is done to it beyond steaming, and I have never had a bland chicken there.
 

The golden gravy cries out to be spooned over rice. I sometimes try to choose between the chicken and Poached Pork Belly With Minced Garlic (from $16), but always end up ordering both. Like the chicken, the pork is full of flavour on its own. The Foos insist on fresh pork which has never seen the inside of a freezer.
 

The Famous Kitchen will make a perfectly good steamed fish, Hong Kong style, for you. But order Steamed Fish With Preserved Vegetables On Hot Plate (market price). Sour preserved vegetables, chillies and thick slices of roast pork belly, apart from the fish, make this a substantial one-dish meal, if you are in that sort of mood. Again, the flavours are sharp, true and robust. There is no faffing around.
 

Of course, all these dishes should be eaten with rice. But save room for KL Style Hokkien Mee (from $12) because it is done very well here. Masses of wok hei, good quality dark soya sauce and, crucially, cubes of lard, make me forget about low-carbing.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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13 Smitten with fried porridge
 

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Mixed Pig Organ Fried Porridge ($6) from Old World Bak Kut Teh Fried Porridge.

 

 

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Dry Fried Mee Sua ($1) and Bak Kut Teh ($7).


OLD WORLD BAK KUT TEH FRIED PORRIDGE

Where: 01-380, 732 Yishun Avenue 5
Open: 10am to 2.30pm, 5 to 8pm (Tuesdays to Fridays), 8.30am to 2.30pm, 5 to 8.30pm (Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays), closed on Mondays

 

This stall in a coffee shop specialises in frying unfryable things.
 

Mee sua is one of them. This sort of rice vermicelli is usually served in soup. The strands stick together, you see, and to fry them like you would beehoon or kway teow, you will need a ton of oil to stop the noodles from clumping up.
 

Porridge is another. How in tarnation does Old World Bak Kut Teh do it? Fry a semi-liquid thing?
 

Its Mixed Pig Organ Fried Porridge ($6) is, hands down, the best thing I ate for this feature.
 

The dish looks seriously ugly. A bowl of brown sludge. But I am smitten from the first spoonful. The porridge is deeply infused with wok hei and that smokiness is intoxicating. It smells and tastes like how fried hor fun should, but never does because proper, no-holds-barred wok hei is so elusive.
 

I am happy to just slurp up fried porridge, but am glad there is a generous amount of impeccably cleaned large pig intestines and pig stomach in the bowl. The slices of lean pork and pig liver are less compelling - both are overcooked.
 

The owner, Mr Jemmy Yeo, who opened Old World in 2019, says he got the idea from Penang, where hawkers fry white porridge and add seasonings to it. His version is different. The base is Hokkien kiam buay - savoury, Hokkien-style porridge - which he then fries in an atomically hot wok. The ones he uses are smaller and lighter than zi char woks - his measure about 30cm in diameter. He can achieve wok hei in a far shorter time in these smaller woks, he says.
 

His Bak Kut Teh ($7) is generously sized, with four meaty ribs. I like that it is not too peppery, but the soup is under-salted. This is easily fixed, however.
 

To have with the bak kut teh, I get Dry Fried Mee Sua ($1), another dish worth ordering. The vermicelli is beautifully springy, not weighed down with oil. The flavour of shallot oil infuses each strand and there are lard cubes buried among the noodles.
 

I have not recovered from the crazy eating I did for this feature, but once I do, I will be back for fried porridge and fried mee sua.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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14 Bali vibes
 

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Nasi Ambeng ($23.90 for a two-person serving) from Coba Coba.


COBA COBA

Where: 156 Yishun Street 11, tel: 6382-2622
Open: 7am to 8.15pm (Wednesdays to Mondays), closed on Tuesdays

 

First things first. Say "choba choba". Which means "try try" in Indonesian.

Second thing. This halal shop in Yishun looks like a hipster cafe and you might wonder if the food is all that. It is.
 

Instead of dipping my toes in and maybe ordering nasi padang and nasi lemak, I skip all of that and home in on the Nasi Ambeng ($23.90 for a two-person serving), that Javanese communal and celebratory dish of rice, meat and vegetables laid out on a large platter.
 

One taste of the bean sprout urap or salad, and I am transported to Bali. The cekur, also called sand ginger, always transports me to that island. And in quick succession, I note the pungent Chinese celery leaves in the bergedil, the bright and piquant sambal terung and telur belado, and the mellow richness of the ayam kalio.
 

There is more - beef rendang that is not dried out or stringy; sambal goreng with big cubes of tempeh and green beans that are still snappy; and pieces of paru, or beef lung, crisp in parts, spongy in others.
 

Every element is cooked with care. The spicing and heat levels are on point. Not everything is atomically spicy and nothing is dull or bland.
 

Owner Timothy Yun, 35, who went to university in Sydney, has Indonesian friends and used to frequent an Indonesian restaurant near where he lived, whenever he needed a comfort food fix. When he came home and decided that being a chemical engineer was not for him, he opened Coba Coba, modelled on the kind of restaurants he enjoyed seeking out in Australia. "I always looked for places that are cheap and good," he says.
 

He is hands-on in the kitchen, toggling between the Yishun shop and Coba Coba Kedai Kopi in the Jalan Besar area. He had worked in restaurants in Sydney, and instead of just hiring chefs, he learns their recipes so he can cook them himself. And he trains all the new recruits too.
 

"Chefs come and go, but I'm a constant here," he says. "So I learn all the recipes first and pass them on to chefs we hire subsequently. Consistency is the most important thing. So whenever I introduce a new recipe, everybody learns it."
 

He has no qualms teaching his crew, figuring that running a food business is much more than knowing a clutch of recipes.
 

The care he takes with his food shines through on the plate at his all-day restaurant. "I have customers who come three times a day - breakfast, lunch and dinner."

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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15 Mad juicy sheng jian bao
 

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Tricolor Sheng Jian Bao from Nosignboard Sheng Jian


NOSIGNBOARD SHENG JIAN

Where: 01-137 Northpoint City, 1 Northpoint Drive, tel: 6665-9959
Open: 10am to 9.30pm daily

 

In this northern odyssey, I try very hard to avoid mall and chain restaurants, but a couple slip through. This sheng jian bao restaurant by No Signboard Holdings is one of them.
 

A colleague had said it was worth visiting and I make my way to sprawling Northpoint City, quite literally city-like in scale.
 

For the uninitiated, sheng jian bao are made with yeast-leavened dough - like char siew bao - but they are cooked like gyoza, pan-fried until crisp at the bottom and steamed on top.
 

Despite my colleague's endorsement, I temper my expectations. The restaurant is in a mall, for goodness' sake. But I seem to always be eating my words and I do so here.
 

I will say this - I will be darkening these doors often. I go to two Shanghai restaurants for sheng jian bao in Singapore and neither of them serve bao that are better.
 

The restaurant has a very impersonal vibe. You order and pay at a counter. Take a seat. Keep eyes on an electronic screen for when your number flashes on it. Go to the collection counter to get your food. Rinse and repeat, schlepp up and down, if you have ordered many items. The people at the table next to me take turns to collect their food.
 

Ambience? Nada. Zip. Zero. But who cares, when the food is good?
 

Oh. A word of warning before you chow down: Tuck a napkin down the front of your shirt and try not to wear white.
 

Why? The sheng jian bao are crazy juicy - I have chilli crab stains on my white dress to prove it. They are not kidding about the "popping juices" part.
 

I order a sampler, Tricolor Sheng Jian Bao ($10.80 for six), with two each of the Signature, Chilli Crab and Vegan bao. The chilli crab sauce packs a punch and the bao is mad juicy. What lets it down is the frozen crabmeat, which is mushy. But honestly, it would be crazy to expect hand-picked, lump crabmeat.
 

The signature bao is excellent - juices flow copiously out of it and it has a very crispy bottom. What thrills me is the contrast in textures - that crunchy bottom and soft top.
 

Even the vegan version, filled with chopped greens and shredded carrot, is good, but not as juicy as the other two.
 

Pan-fried Juicy Guotie Dumpling ($5.50 for three) is just as juicy - how much jellied stock do they stuff inside the dumplings? But I prefer the bao for the bigger contrast in textures.
 

Another dish worth ordering is Sliced Pork With Garlic In Spicy Sauce ($7.80). What the menu does not say, in English at least, is that the slices of pork sit on a bed of fen pi, translucent noodles that are off-the-charts QQ. The garlicky pork, sliced thin but not dried out, and the springy noodles are almost perfect. I just need more black vinegar.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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16 Laksa as it should be
 

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This laksa's gravy is lemak but not crazy rich - that is a fine balance to strike, says the writer.


928 Yishun Laksa

Where: 01-155, 928 Yishun Central 1
Open: 7am to 7pm (Mondays to Saturdays), closed on Sundays

 

Looking at the state of laksa in Singapore, I can only conclude that the Health Promotion Board is staffed with overachievers. They have done their jobs so well that food people think of as rich and indulgent have become light and politically correct.
 

Very little coconut milk, no oil floating on top of the bowl. Some places don't even offer cockles. These are unacceptable crimes against laksa.
 

I don't eat it often, maybe twice a year, if that. But when I do, I want unabashed richness. Because that kind of laksa is hard to find, I have gone entire years not eating it. Then recently, I hit paydirt and find two places - George's Katong Laksa in Changi Road and 928 Yishun Laksa.
 

It is a rainy morning when I rock up to Yishun Central. Despite the weather, there are people doing takeaways at 928, and all but one of the tables is occupied. The bowls cost $3 and $3.50 and I get the larger one with an extra dollar's worth of cockles.
 

The gravy is lemak but not crazy rich - that is a fine balance to strike. My belly, very moody in the morning, is thankful. Better yet, the laksa rempah has oomph, with plenty of dried prawn flavour. I stir in the generous dollop of sambal gleefully. It can only make the dish richer, right?
 

Small cockles overcook in a heartbeat, but these are still juicy. A friend reminds me of the olde days, where cockles were much larger. These days, we are grateful for any cockles, small or large.
 

The New York Times predicted, in a piece about American food trends in 2022, that laksa is poised to "rise in prominence" in the United States. I shudder at the thought, remembering the horrors visited on laksa when it became hot in Australia, oh, about a decade ago. Red capsicum? Really?
 

So it is very good to know that there are laksa shops in Singapore that are still showing the proper way to make the dish. In case the Americans want to take notes. They should. Look at what that newspaper did to chicken curry.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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17 Satisfying brain freeze
 

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Peanut Ice Kachang ($2.50) from Lit Lit Sin Dessert.


LIT LIT SIN DESSERT

Where: 01-157, 928 Yishun Central 1
Open: 9am to 6.30pm (Wednesdays to Mondays), closed on Tuesdays

 

All this gleeful stirring of sambal into laksa gravy thrills my taste buds, but then after slurping up a lot of laksa gravy at 928 Yishun Laksa, my forehead reminds me I am a chilli coward. Beads of sweat pop up on my brow.
 

After I am done, I head next door to Lit Lit Sin Dessert, another no-frills, unpretentious neighbourhood place. Like the laksa shop, you order, eat and go. Patrons are reminded, via signs on the table tops, that they have "30 mins grace". Also, "Laksa not allow".
 

It does not take long to inhale my Peanut Ice Kachang ($2.50). For the price, I get a very generous shower of crushed peanuts over a shaved ice mountain, with jelly, corn kernels, atap chee and large red beans that are perfectly tender - such a lovely change from the small, mushy red beans that some stalls use.
 

Gingko Nut With Barley ($1.80/$2) - I don't know why they automatically assume I want the $2 bowl - is way too sweet for me.
 

Stick to the ice kacang, I say. A brain freeze after laksa is not a bad thing.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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18 Chill with ayam panggang
 

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Coffee on a weekday morning at the tranquil Soek Seng 1954 Bicycle Cafe is delightful escapism, says the writer.

 

 

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Ayam Panggang ($10.80) from Soek Seng 1954 Bicycle Cafe.


SOEK SENG 1954 BICYCLE CAFE

Where: 1-01 MAJ Aviation Building, 80 Seletar Aerospace View, tel: 6659-6124
Open: 10am to 10pm (Tuesdays to Sundays), closed on Mondays

 

If this loathsome pandemic has brought on a severe case of cabin fever, escape to Seletar.
 

Coffee on a weekday morning at the tranquil Soek Seng 1954 Bicycle Cafe is delightful escapism. I snag a seat outside, although the cafe, with bicycles and bicycle paraphernalia hanging on the walls - plus air-conditioning - is a comfortable place in which to sit and dream.
 

Dreaming can be done outdoors too - you just have to be careful the pappadum that come with your Ayam Panggang ($10.80) do not fly away. You could solve the problem by eating them, but I wouldn't. The ones on my plate had lost all crunch.
 

The other accompaniment to the chicken, achar, is terrific - hot, sour, salty and not sweet.
 

I am grateful for the nasi kuning on the plate, which mitigates some of the heat from the pickles and the chicken. The bird is more likely deep-fried than grilled, so even is the browning. A very robust sambal is painted on top and I am thankful for the breeze, which cools my fevered brow.
 

A tall mug of iced lemongrass tisane ($3.20) does the job too, although I would like it a lot less sweet. I chase that with a mocha ($6) and marvel at how, in a tiny island like Singapore, there are still places to escape to.
 

Then, my mental vacation is over and I drive reluctantly away.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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19 Over-the-top take on kaya toast
 

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The Chicken Pinche Sandwich ($15) from Wildseed Cafe.

 

 

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Atas Kaya Toast ($8) from Wildseed Cafe.


WILDSEED CAFE

Where: 3 Park Lane, tel: 8126-7524
Open: 8.30am to 5pm daily

 

This charming cafe is part of The Summerhouse, a food, beverage and lifestyle refuge from the cruel world. It is housed in a bungalow in the Seletar Airport area and is so very chill.
 

Aside from the cafe, there is a French restaurant, a bar, an edible garden and an events venue. Scattered about are Garden Domes, climate-controlled geodesic spaces in which to have a romantic dinner or a small party.
 

I hope one day to snag one of the domes for coffee and cake, just to see what it is like to dine in a dome. But truth be told, I am perfectly happy sitting semi-outdoors. Flowers and greenery are everywhere - such a balm for when life gets overwhelming.
 

The perky staffer who takes my order at the counter steers me away from a bacon and cheese bun I want to order, and suggests the Chicken Pinche Sandwich ($15). It is substantial - between two slices of sturdy bread spread with perky jalapeno mayonnaise is piled smoked chicken breast, grilled baby corn, pea shoots and avocado.
 

I love the mild hit of heat in the mayonnaise and the char marks on the baby corn. There is texture and flavour hits with every bite. The sandwich would be perfect if the chicken was not of the processed variety.
 

Unable to resist Atas Kaya Toast ($8), I order it on a whim and have no regrets.
 

Half a toasted sourdough bun is spread thickly with a not-too-sweet, super eggy and fragrant kaya, with a tunnel of cold butter hiding underneath. Served alongside is freshly grated coconut with a sous-vide egg on top, drizzled with gula melaka. The contrasts make this over-the-top take on a breakfast favourite work. Sweet and salty, crunchy and soft, hot and cold.
 

I have not been able to stop thinking about it.
 

Will they sell me a jar of that kaya, I wonder?

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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20 Happy with fried chicken skin and ice cream
 

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Tenderbest Makcik Tuckshop, a halal restaurant, is part of the Tenderfresh Group.

 

 

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Fried Chicken Aisi Kreme Cup ($4.90) from Tenderbest Makcik Tuckshop.


TENDERBEST MAKCIK TUCKSHOP

Where: 246 Jalan Kayu, tel: 9779-9477
Open: Noon to 11pm (Mondays to Thursdays), noon to midnight (Fridays), 11am to midnight (Saturdays), 11am to 11pm (Sundays)

 

Jalan Kayu is thick with restaurants, some longstanding, some quirky. But one restaurant draws me like a moth to flame.
 

You might be surprised because it is part of a chain. Tenderbest Makcik Tuckshop, a halal restaurant, is part of the Tenderfresh Group, which owns brands such as Sultan Burger and Hawkerman. There are three tuckshops: in Punggol, Woodlands and Jalan Kayu.
 

Now, the group specialises in fried chicken and the wings that come with my Crispy Wing Rice ($7.50) live up to their name.
 

But then I cut into Tom Yam Roasted Whole Leg Sedap Lemak ($10.90) and the juices almost take my eye out. Thank goodness for spectacles. I take a bite - there is nothing in the marinade that resembles tom yum - but the chicken is juicy. And, of course, tender.
 

A word about the carbs. The chicken rice that comes with the wings is terrific, so infused with chicken (or chicken powder) flavour. It is good enough to eat on its own. So is the nasi lemak that comes with the roast chicken - it is very coconut forward.
 

Until this point, I am thinking. Well, this place is clean and bright, the staff are friendly and helpful, the food is mostly good. But what is its X factor?
 

It is this: Fried Chicken Aisi Kreme Cup ($4.90). The tortured name of the dessert gives nothing away, but I will gladly go back for fried chicken skin with ice cream and a drizzle of caramel. I'll even supply my own ice cream if the staff will let me. I am not a fan of the brand they use. The ice cream is way too sweet, the vanilla flavour way too simulated.
 

But it is perfect with two pieces of atomically crunchy chicken skin, rubbed with the secret spice blend that flavours all the fried chicken. There is a hint of chilli, a hint of pepper. This dessert is the only thing I allow myself to finish in my eating odyssey of the north.
 

A lit sign at the back of the restaurant reads: "Eat what makes you happy, makcik say one."
 

Yes, makcik, I hear you loud and clear.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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  • sphere changed the title to Food In The Hood - The Sunday Times (5-part series)

The Sunday Times, Life Section (20 February 2022)

 

 

Food In The Hood: 20 eating places to check out in the east of Singapore

 

 

Food in the Hood - Episode 2: Great eats in the east of Singapore

 

 

Residents in the eastern part of Singapore are often the envy of foodies.
 

Neighbourhoods such as Katong, Marine Parade, Geylang and Bedok throng with plenty of good and affordable food choices.
 

That is certainly true. I do not live near any of those areas, but make the trek regularly to Joo Chiat Road and the Old Airport Road Food Centre for my food fixes.
 

So it was tough sticking to just 20 picks for what the east has to offer. But what I have shortlisted are my trusty favourites and new finds, which I would happily go out of my way for.
 

Some are old haunts I have been patronising for years.
 

Others were discovered while I was researching for this article - when I spotted a long queue at a stall, for instance, and checked out what the fuss was about.
 

Popularity is not always an indicator of good food, however. I wasted a lot of time standing in line for food that turned out to be average.
 

Even old favourites hold no guarantee of quality. Two roast meat stalls I had previously raved about - in Loyang and Yio Chu Kang - had let their standards slip. Their roast duck and char siew were still above average, but not good enough to go out of your way for.
 

Some picks, such as 928 Katong Laksa, have outlets in different parts of Singapore, but the eastern branch is the one to make a beeline for.
 

It beats its competitors in the neighbourhood hands down with its rich base stock, which amps up the usual dependence on a spice paste and coconut milk for flavour.
 

Here is my much pared-down list of 20 places to binge in the east.
 

There are more, but those will have to wait for another article.

 

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Happy - is what we should be, always.

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1 Thumbs up for Thai-style chunky pork satay

 

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YAOWARAT SEAFOOD

Where: 27 Teck Chye Terrace, tel: 6858-5988

Open: Noon to 3pm, 5 to 9.30pm daily

 

Tucked in the middle of a row of eateries facing Upper Serangoon Road, it is easy to miss this Thai seafood restaurant. It does not help that the parking is a nightmare.
 

But after seeing photos of its dishes, including luscious hairy cockles topped with minced garlic and chilli, my interest was piqued.
 

Those cockles are off-menu, however, as they are not always available and prices vary. But worry not, prices at Yaowarat Seafood are wallet-friendly and you should not have to pay more than $15 for them.
 

If they are unavailable, the menu has a lot more to offer.
 

The Thai Yellow Curry Crab (from $56 for 700g) will transport you immediately to Bangkok with its buttery curry sauce thickened with egg. Or get the appetising Squid Steamed Thai Style ($15.90), with a spicy-sour dressing made with lime juice and chilli padi.
 

One of my favourite dishes here is surprisingly not seafood, but the Pork Satay ($2.90 each). Chunky pieces of meat are infused with herbs and spices before being grilled to a smoky finish.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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2 Crips around the edges, chewy on the inside

 

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HOUGANG OYSTER OMELETTE & FRIED KWAY TEOW

Where: 435A Hougang Avenue 8

Open: 11am to 7.30pm (Tuesdays to Sundays), closed on Mondays

 

When it comes to oyster omelette, fans fall into two camps. One likes it gooey, with blobs of stretchy starch within the omelette. The other prefers it crispy and eggy.
 

At this stall in Hougang, you get the best of both worlds as the elderly hawker has perfected the art after tossing the omelette about for more than 30 years. He fries each batch in a large flat-bottomed wok with lard and manages to get the edges crisp, while retaining just the right amount of chewy starch in the omelette.
 

The oysters are also bigger than at other places and nicely undercooked. Eaten with a piquant chilli sauce, this may be one of the best oyster omelettes ($5.50 and $6.50) around.
 

Forget about the char kway teow ($4 and $4.50), though. Fried by the hawker's wife, it is wet and oily with little wok hei. The cockles, however, remain juicy.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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3 Juicy, fatty, sweet char siew

 

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ROAST PARADISE

Where: 01-121 Old Airport Road Food Centre, Block 51 Old Airport Road

Open: 11am to 6pm (Tuesdays to Sundays), closed on Mondays

 

The queue for this stall's char siew and roast pork starts the moment its shutters go up and lights come on. It ends only when every single item sells out, which is often hours earlier than its official closing time.
 

The star is definitely the Kuala Lumpur-style char siew ($4.50 with rice or noodles), where fatty pork is used, then coated with maltose, so the sweetness helps to balance the fat.
 

The roasting caramelises the sugar and turns the edges crispy, while keeping everything juicy inside. And the fat gets so soft, it melts in the mouth.
 

The stall used to sell two types of char siew, including a lean cut which I found unremarkable. It was frustrating when the fatty version was sold out by lunchtime and I had to settle for less. Now at least I know I'm always getting the good stuff.
 

The roast pork ($4.50 with rice or noodles) is good too, with its crisp crackling and tender meat, though not as outstanding as the char siew.
 

For variety, get a plate of char siew roast pork rice ($5). The sweet and savoury combo is just perfect.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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4 Souped-up bak chor mee

 

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MINCED PORK BROS

Where: 01-113 Old Airport Road Food Centre, Block 51 Old Airport Road

Open: 9.30am to 4.30pm (Wednesdays to Mondays), closed on Tuesdays

 

This bak chor mee stall was opened by five "bros" - close buddies who grew up together.
 

It is fronted by Mr Kai Koh, 36, but you sometimes see partner Randall Gan popping in to help too.
 

If they look familiar, that is because you may have seen them chopping roast meats at another stall they own a few units away called Roast Paradise.
 

Not content to follow the crowd, the young men do not just sell classic bak chor mee with the usual minced pork, meat slices and dumplings ($3 and $4), but have also come up with three souped-up versions. And these are the ones to get.
 

My favourite is Signature ($5.50), which comprises a bowl of dry mee pok with a bowl of superior soup.
 

The dish looks rather plain - until you dig into the soup and discover what is in it, which includes a pork ball, minced prawn, a scallop and a pork dumpling.
 

The noodles are smooth and tossed in a mild chilli sauce tangy with black vinegar and rich with lard. The soup is full-bodied and feels almost creamy in the mouth.
 

Another creation is Seafood ($6, above), which comes topped with ikura (salmon roe), a prawn, minced pork and fish dumpling.
 

The last is Teochew ($6), which includes half a soft-centre marinated egg and a small abalone besides pork.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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5 'Best kway chap in Singapore'

 

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TO-RICOS GUO SHI

Where: 01-135 Old Airport Road Food Centre, Block 51 Old Airport Road

Open: 11am to 3pm, closed on Mondays and Wednesdays

 

I have been a fan of the kway chap here since the 1980s when it was at the now-defunct Blanco Court food centre.
 

My devotion did not waver after it moved to its current location in Old Airport Road in 1998.
 

The draw is its bowls of smooth rice sheets (kway) served with perfectly stewed pig innards (chap). For me, this is - without question - the best kway chap in Singapore.
 

You pick from a selection of toppings that include pork belly, intestines, tripe, skin as well as fishcake and taupok, and pay accordingly. My single serving of belly, big intestines and skin, with a bowl of kway, costs $7.60.
 

Everything is cooked perfectly. The meat is just short of fork-tender, leaving it juicy and flavourful. The intestines have a springy texture while the skin has bite - just the way I like it.
 

The queue starts forming before the stall opens at 11am but get in line anyway. It moves quickly because of the efficient workflow - one person takes orders, another chops up the innards and a third scoops out the kway. Before you know it, lunch is served.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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6 Chinese restaurant with great assam laksa

 

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Assam Laksa

 

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Char Kway Teow

 

PENANG SEAFOOD RESTAURANT

Where: 32 Aljunied Road, tel: 6841-3002

Open: 11am to midnight daily

 

Though it sells a few Penang hawker dishes such as assam laksa ($6) and char kway teow ($6 to $12), this is actually a Singapore Chinese restaurant with more than 100 dishes on the menu.
 

Specialities include salted egg prawn (from $20) and fermented pork belly (from $12). Another popular dish is the volcano chicken ($48).
 

If you are there alone or as a couple, it might be easier to order the hawker dishes. Bigger groups can share the Chinese dishes. But either way, order the assam laksa. It is, by far, the best version in Singapore.
 

The cook needs to work on the presentation, though. It looks a mess, with the noodles and vegetables smothered by a layer of mashed fish meat. The char kway teow is a close second, with enough wok hei and boasting a savoury, rather than sweet, taste profile.
 

Get both carbs, you've earned it!

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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7 Braving Geylang for Hokkien mee

 

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SWEE GUAN HOKKIEN MEE

Where: 5 Lorong 29 Geylang

Open: 5 to 10pm (Thursdays to Tuesdays), closed on Wednesdays

 

Geylang is known for good food, but I find a lot of it to be overrated, whether it is wonton mee or beef hor fun. They are passably pleasant, but not enough to tempt me to brave the congested roads and difficult parking in the area.
 

Swee Guan's fried Hokkien mee, however, is worth the effort. The stall opens only in the evening and draws a long queue, so try to get there before 6pm.
 

Prices are $6, $8, $10 and $15, but unless you are planning to eat something else, fork out for the bigger orders. I easily polish off the $10 plate by myself, supposedly for two.
 

Another reason to pay more is the prawns get bigger as the price goes up. My order comes with four large ones packed with firm and succulent meat.
 

The noodles boast plenty of wok hei and are braised in a delicious stock with squid, bean sprouts and fried egg. A moreish sambal provides a spicy oomph, but the dish is good on its own too.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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8 Make a special trip for a taste of heritage

 

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REMPAPA

Where: 01-01 Park Place Residences at PLQ, 2 Paya Lebar Road, tel: 9459-1603

Open: Weekdays, breakfast from 10.30am to noon, lunch from noon to 3.30pm, afternoon tea and bar snacks from 3.30 to 6pm, dinner and bar snacks from 6 to 10.30pm; weekends and public holidays: brunch from 9.30am to 3.30pm, afternoon tea and bar snacks from 3.30 to 6pm, dinner and bar snacks from 6 to 10.30pm

 

This new restaurant by chef Damian D'Silva is worth a special trip. It serves a mix of Singapore heritage dishes with a strong focus on Eurasian and Peranakan cuisines, but also includes Chinese and Indian dishes from the chef's childhood memories.
 

There are some Penang items too, thanks to a cook who hails from the Malaysian island.
 

The menu changes through the day, with mostly single-person hawker items for lunch and tea, and sharing dishes for dinner.
 

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The Stir-fried Chee Cheong Fun ($13, above) served in the early part of the day is a show-stopper that reminds me of Penang char kway teow but with rice rolls instead of flat noodles. It also tastes more complex because, on top of black soya sauce, the recipe calls for lashings of black bean sauce, fish sauce and hua tiao Chinese wine.

 

The Nasi Lemak ($17) is good too, with fragrant coconut rice and the biggest ikan selar you will find in this dish anywhere.
 

Dinner dishes to order include the tart Kedongdong Salad ($15) and the umami-packed Seafood Beehoon ($48).

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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9 Malaysian-style wok-cooked noodle dishes

 

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IPOH TUCK KEE SON

Where: B1-85/87 Katong Shopping Centre, 865 Mountbatten Road, tel: 8575-6044

Open: 11am to 3pm, 5 to 9.30pm

 

In some Malaysian towns, there are zi char stalls that specialise in wok-cooked noodle dishes and Restoran Tuck Kee in Ipoh is one of them.
 

The owner's son expanded into Singapore recently and his partners now run this stall in Katong Shopping Centre.
 

The menu is similar to that of the original Ipoh shop, with a small selection of noodle items such as Wat Dan Hor (hor fun with egg gravy, from $5.50) and snacks like Baby Octopus In Soy Sauce ($10).
 

The must-order is Yu Kong Hor (from $5.50), which is Cantonese for Moonlight Hor Fun. The super-smooth strands of flat rice noodles are braised in a delicious dark soya sauce with prawns, lean pork, small intestines and chye sim vegetable. Its fanciful name comes from the raw egg that is cracked over the noodles just before serving - a reference to the bright yellow yolk silhouetted against the inky noodles.
 

The egg lends a nice richness to the noodles, which may be why it is more flavourful than the Dai Loke Mee (from $5), the Malaysian moniker for KL Hokkien Mee, which is cooked with the same black sauce.
 

If you would like seconds, plump for the Wat Dan Hor, drowned in so much gravy that it resembles a soup - but a good one. The Baby Octopus also makes a good snack, with the chewy morsels accompanied by a garlicky chilli sauce.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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10 HK cart noodles like the real thing

 

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FEI GONG CART NOODLES

Where: 01-770, 80 Marine Parade Central

Open: 10am to 9pm daily

 

This Hong Kong cart noodles stall, which opened late last year in a coffee shop in Marine Parade, is the most authentic version I have eaten here. In the Chinese territory, the streetside shops selling this dish - where customers choose toppings for the noodles from an open display - are fast disappearing.
 

At Fei Gong, you get to pick from a wide selection of toppings, such as braised beef brisket ($2.50), chicken mid-joint wing ($1.50) and curry fish ball ($1), to add to rice vermicelli or egg noodle ($1.50). Not to be missed is the radish ($1), which is simmered in stock till it is soft and sweet.
 

There is a choice of sauces too, ranging from braise gravy to curry. I like mine with clear soup with chilli oil on the side as a dip.
 

With the tempting toppings on display, one can easily over-order, but as a guide, stop at four.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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11 Laksa broth worth slurping up

 

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328 KATONG LAKSA

Where: 51 East Coast Road

Open: 9.30am to 9.30pm daily

 

It is easy to get into a heated argument in this hood over who serves the best Katong laksa.
 

Within walking distance in East Coast Road alone are two popular stalls - 328 Katong Laksa and Janggut Laksa @ Roxy Square - each with its own following. Then there is George's Katong Laksa in Changi Road that others swear by.
 

After visiting all three recently, my vote goes to 328 Katong Laksa. It scores in an area that others neglect: Under all that spice and coconut milk is a flavourful base broth that makes you slurp up every drop.
 

Katong laksa is different from the more ubiquitous version of this spicy noodle dish. It is richer with coconut milk, making it more lemak. And the thick beehoon used for the dish is cut into short strands and eaten with only a spoon - which ensures that every bite is accompanied with some gravy.
 

The toppings are fishcake, which is cut into strips to fit easily into the spoon, prawns that are shelled and halved, as well as cockles. Each ingredient has a distinctive texture and flavour, but blends well with the spicy gravy.
 

The laksa comes in two sizes - $5.50 and $7.50. Unless you are ravenous, the small serving should suffice. It may not look like much, but the coconut milk makes it a heavy meal.
 

The stall has four outlets, including at Queensway and Westgate shopping centres, but there is nothing like enjoying the dish at its original branch in East Coast Road, just for the Katong spirit.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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12 Prawn noodles to drive for

 

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DA DONG PRAWN NOODLES

Where: 354 Joo Chiat Road

Open: 7.30am to 2pm (Wednesdays to Mondays), closed on Tuesdays

 

Though it is a long drive away for me, this is one of my most frequented hawker stalls. It does not take long for me to get a craving for its amazing prawn broth.
 

I usually go for the soup version because, for me, a good stock is what defines prawn mee. And Da Dong boasts the best - full-bodied with just the right balance of seafood sweetness from prawns and meatiness from pork. It is so precious that there is just enough to cover the noodles. A sign at the stall front warns you against asking for more or risk diluting it.
 

I have been eating here way before current owner Watson Lim took over four years ago from his father, who started the stall in 1966, and I feel it reliably delivers. Prices range from $5 to $15, depending on the size of the prawns.
 

I always get the $10 bowl with medium-sized prawns and pork ribs. The $5 version is barely enough to line my stomach and the $8 rendition yields only slices of lean pork instead of delicious and tender ribs.
 

I also pass on the $15 serving because the large prawns in it come halved with shells attached. Having to pull the meat out and make a mess? Too much of a bother.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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13 Quality savouries, sweets, sandwiches

 

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TIGERLILY PATISSERIE

Where: 350 Joo Chiat Road

Open: 9am to 5pm (Tuesdays to Sundays), closed on Mondays

 

Among the assembly of cafes along Joo Chiat Road, Tigerlily is indisputably the best. Its executive pastry chef Maxine Ngooi used to work at Michelin-starred restaurants such as Joel Robuchon and Vianney Massot, so the pastries here are good enough to grace the tables of fine-dining establishments.
 

There is a good selection of savouries and sweets, as well as unique sandwiches like Monsieur Kim ($15), a twist on the French croque monsieur with kimchi added to the usual ham-and-cheese grilled sandwich.
 

The classic Bacon, Leek And Gruyere Quiche ($6) or Pain Au Chocolat ($4.50) are great for breakfast too.
 

I have a soft spot for the Pink Guava & Pear ($10) cake, a pretty confection decorated with colourful irregular shapes inspired by the cafe's terrazzo table tops. It tastes refreshing, with a layer of pink guava cream and jelly with cubed fresh pears in the centre encased in elderflower liqueur pear mousse.
 

The Beehive ($13), a lemon sponge and honey parfait, is a tad too sweet for me, but is one for the 'Gram, with its bright yellow yuzu casing. There is even a little chocolate bee perched on it.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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14 Char kway teow with fiery chilli

 

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JOO CHIAT PLACE FRIED KWAY TEOW

Where: Dong Cheng Eatery, 59 Joo Chiat Place

Open: 11am to 8.30pm (Thursdays to Tuesdays), closed on Wednesdays

 

A short walk from the busy row of eateries in Joo Chiat Road is a small nondescript coffee shop. Those in the know head there for char kway teow.
 

A sign at the stall says it dates back to the 1950s and, currently, two women run the stall. One does the frying, the other takes orders. The wait time is mercifully short - not more than 15 minutes.
 

The kway teow is fried in small batches, which ensures that the noodles are enveloped in wok hei and do not get soggy, while the bean sprouts stay crunchy.
 

Each plate ($4 or $5) also comes with a generous amount of egg and slices of fishcake. I like that the cockles are not overcooked and stay tender and juicy. Say yes to the chilli - fiery but shiok.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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15 Tomahawk steak for four

 

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TOMAHAWK KING

Where: 324F Changi Road, tel: 8790-2242

Open: 11am to 10pm daily

 

If you are looking for a halal steak, this is the best place to find it.
 

The highlight of this Muis-certified restaurant is the Tomahawk Steak ($138 for 1.1kg to 1.2kg), which can feed three to four persons. The price includes three sides, cheesy fries, onion rings and a garden salad.
 

The 120 days grain-fed Australian steak is grilled to perfection. The corners will suit those who prefer their meat more cooked while the centre stays pink and juicy.
 

It is good for delivery too . The first time I tasted it was during the circuit breaker in 2020 when restaurants were closed. It brought me much joy then.
 

If you are not planning to share, the restaurant also has options such as Sirloin Steak ($43.90 for 250g to 300g), Grilled Chicken ($15.90) and Braised Lamb Shank ($39.90). May these bring you joy too.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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16 Excellent mee soto, elusive lontong

 

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DESA RANCAPANGGUNG

Where: 739 Bedok Reservoir Road

Open: 7am to 3pm (Saturdays to Thursdays), closed on Fridays

 

Ask anyone who lives in Bedok Reservoir Road where to eat and, chances are, you will be pointed to a Malay stall in one of the coffee shops there.
 

Desa Rancapanggung is named after a town in Java, Indonesia, which is where the matriarch of the family-owned stall hails from. You know you have found it when you see a long queue snaking outside the coffee shop at lunchtime.
 

Many people recommend the lontong, but that is sold out or unavailable every time I visit.
 

The beef rendang ($3) is good too, others advise. It is delicious, as are many of the cooked dishes. The taucheo fish ($3), fish fillet cooked in a thick gravy of blended fermented soya beans and spices, made me gasp in delight the first time I tucked in.
 

There are noodles dishes too, including an excellent Mee Soto ($3) that comes with two chicken drumlets and an aromatic broth spiked with spices.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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17 Food landmark in Bedok

 

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CHIN LEE TEOCHEW RESTAURANT

Where: 01-285, 115 Bedok North Road, tel: 6449-5454

Open: 11.30am to 2.30pm, 6 to 10.30pm daily

 

This neighbourhood restaurant in a Housing Board block has been around since 1973, so it has become a landmark in the Bedok foodscape, although few non-residents may have heard of it.
 

It is packed with families in the evenings, who flock there for the Home-made Teochew Prawn Ball ($10 for small). Commonly known as hae chor, these deep-fried balls burst with juices from the filling of fresh prawn, minced fatty pork and water chestnut.
 

The Conpoy & Fish Maw Thick Soup ($10 a single-person bowl or $30 for small) is good too. Packed with ingredients, the delicately flavoured broth tastes free of commercial chicken powder seasoning - rare for a neighbourhood Chinese restaurant.
 

The Steamed Pomfret ($80 for small) cannot be faulted either. The fish is fresh and the cooking perfectly timed. It comes in a tangy clear broth flavoured with sour plums, salted vegetable, Chinese mushrooms and pork fat.
 

The Teochew Kway Teow ($15 for small), fried with kailan and preserved radish, is the best version I have eaten. High heat gives it lots of wok hei and the rice noodles, spread out flat like a pancake, are crisp at the sides.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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18 Noodle broth a clear winner

 

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XING JI ROU CUO MIAN

Where: Block 85 Bedok North Street 4, 01-07 Fengshan Centre

Open: 12.30pm to 12.30am (Fridays to Wednesdays), closed on Thursdays

 

One of the best-known hawker stalls in Bedok, this is my top pick for minced meat noodle soup in Singapore.
 

Ordering is ultra simple. Unlike other bak chor mee stalls, there is no dry version. The sole option is thin egg noodles, nothing else. The only decision you need to make is the serving size - $3 or $4.
 

The devil however is in the details: The broth is clear and delicately sweet from simmered pork bones, complemented with springy noodles and toppings of firm, tasty pork balls. Fried minced garlic and deep-fried lard add another layer of flavour. Altogether a low-fuss, delightful treat for the palate.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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19 Smooth noodles, silky wontons

 

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CHEF KIN WANTON NOODLE

Where: Block 59 New Upper Changi Road

Open: 7.30am to 8pm daily

 

Chef Kin is Chan Wing Kin, 58, who worked with the Crystal Jade group of restaurants for 18 years before setting out to start his own wonton mee stall last year.
 

He now has three outlets in Yishun, Bedok and Ang Mo Kio. They sell Hong Kong-style wonton mee ($5), which has thin wiry egg noodles accompanied with four plump shrimp wontons. There is no char siew - unlike in the Singapore version.
 

Despite the no-frills coffee-shop setting, the dishes are served on porcelain crockery and the food tastes as good as in any Hong Kong restaurant.
 

The duck egg noodles have a smooth, firm and slightly springy texture. And when you bite into them, they snap easily without sticking to your teeth. The wontons boast a smooth skin that envelopes crunchy whole prawns, leaving no doubt about their freshness.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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20 Some gems at multi-cuisine Greenhouse

 

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GREENHOUSE

Where: Dusit Thani Laguna Singapore, 11 Laguna Green, tel: 6321-6726

Open: Noon to 3pm, 5 to 11pm daily

 

Located in the newest and poshest hotel in the eastern part of Singapore, this is possibly the east's most beautiful restaurant, with its forest-theme design and walls covered in lush greenery.
 

Scattered within the restaurant are five open kitchens, each specialising in a different cuisine that ranges from Italian to Japanese to Indian. Diners can order from any of them.
 

As expected of a multi-cuisine eatery, not everything is good. But some dishes are outstanding.
 

It is no surprise that the Dusit Thani, being a hotel chain from Thailand, serves up totally legit Thai food. In particular, the Tom Yum Goong ($24) hits the spot. It comes with meaty river prawns and fresh mushrooms swimming in a fiery broth laced with just the right amount of lime juice. Pair this with some Gaeng Kiaow Waan Gai ($24) or green chicken curry. Both dishes come with rice.
 

The Chinese kitchen has some gems too. Kurobuta Pork ($30), what the restaurant calls its sweet and sour pork, does not sound very exciting until you bite into a piece of the juicy meat coated in crispy batter. Instead of the usual pineapple, the dish is fried with lychees.
 

The chef comes from Hong Kong, which explains why the sauce boasts a beautiful balance of tomato, plum sauce and rice wine vinegar. He also does an intoxicating Anxin Chicken ($29) that is smoked with jasmine tea leaves.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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The Sunday Times, Life Section (27 February 2022)

 

 

Food In The Hood: 20 eating places to check out in the west of Singapore

 

 

Food in the Hood - Episode 3: A food fest in the west of Singapore

 

 

"Oh, Boon Lay is so far away, do I need my passport to visit?"
 

"Travel all the way to the wild, wild west, got good food meh? Don't waste my time."
 

As a westie, I have all too often heard disparaging remarks about the dismal state of gastronomy in my hood.
 

When I am compiling this list, I am inundated by recommendations from similarly aggrieved fellow westies, all eager to share their favourite haunts and redeem their hood's reputation.
 

I live in Jurong East, to be exact, and my comfort food consists of Xing Yun Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice, Gan En Mee Hoon Kueh and Joo Siah Bak Koot Teh - all about a five-minute walk from my home.
 

But I soon realise that to do this mission justice, I have to cast off all feelings of familiarity and go farther, much farther, to showcase the best of the west.
 

What would get taste buds from other parts of Singapore excited about this area? What would make people say, "This was worth the trek"?
 

For the list, I eat my way through Choa Chu Kang, Bukit Panjang, Jurong East and Jurong West, Bukit Batok and Hillview, and West Coast and Clementi.
 

It is a pleasure to revisit old haunts that remain as good as I remember. These include lor mee establishment Feng Zhen Lor Mee at Taman Jurong Food Centre and Indian rojak stall Abdhus Salam Rojak at Ayer Rajah Food Centre.
 

Popular names such as steamed fish specialist Zai Shun Curry Fish Head in Jurong East and iO Italian Osteria in Hillview keep popping up in WhatsApp conversations. Deservedly so.
 

Then there are delightful new discoveries for me, like two-month-old Surrey Hills Grocer in Upper Jurong and Hokkien mee stall The Neighbourwok, which opened in June 2020 in Bukit Batok.
 

So if you ever find yourself in the wow, wow west - sans passport - worry not, you now have 20 places to start with.

 

 

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Edited by sphere

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1 Nasi rempah with spiced basmati rice

 

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NASI REMPAH BY 9SPICES

Where: 01-719 CCK 302 Food House, 302 Choa Chu Kang Avenue 4

Open: 6am to 10pm (Mondays), 6 to 1am (Tuesdays to Sundays)

 

I am familiar with nasi lemak and nasi padang, but nasi rempah is a first for me.
 

This halal-certified stall offers its unique version of spiced basmati rice cooked with star anise and cinnamon.
 

I opt for the nasi rempah bento with crispy boneless chicken ($6), which comes with achar, sweet sambal, hard-boiled egg and a small bowl of curry to go with the rice. The large piece of turmeric-marinated chicken is fried to golden perfection yet stays tender and juicy inside.
 

Other options include chicken cutlet ($4), drumstick ($5) and saba fish ($7).
 

The menu also features a noodle version called mee rempah, as well as roti prata and murtabak.
 

I hanker after an item called "rosie mochi" - a rose-flavoured version of mua chee - but am told it is, unfortunately, not on sale anymore.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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2 Zoom in on the granddaddy bowl

 

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UNCLE KKM

Where: 163A Gangsa Road

Open: 3am to 2pm (Fridays to Wednesdays), closed on Thursdays

 

This is the ke kou mian stall that those living in Bukit Panjang hit for supper after a taxing day.
 

The bowls derive their name from the Koka brand of instant noodles, which is used for the dish.
 

Prices start at $4.50 for a bowl filled with minced meat, sliced pork, egg and vegetables. The soup, surprisingly not too salty, derives its flavour from the marinated meat.
 

If your day has been abysmal, get the granddaddy bowl of them all - called the Ah Gong bowl at $8.50. It is generously packed with sliced fish, prawn, minced meat, vegetables, clams, cuttlefish and egg. This is one of the most moreish bowls of ke kou mian I have ever enjoyed and I am sure the folks in the long winding queue agree.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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3 Hearty serving of lontong

 

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OLD TIMES

Where: 01-03 Bukit Panjang Hawker Centre and Market, 2 Bukit Panjang Ring Road

Open: 5.30am to 2.30pm daily

 

The last time I was at the Bukit Panjang Hawker Centre and Market was for the delicious fried carrot cake at the Father & Son stall.
 

When I return this time, I notice many gravitating towards the lontong at Muslim-owned stall Old Times.
 

For $3.50, I get a hearty portion of rice cakes, topped with tender cabbage, carrots and long beans. I have had many versions where the ingredients are soggy and overcooked. Not at all the case here.
 

The rich, coconutty gravy is amped up with sambal and a generous topping of kerisik - dry toasted shredded coconut.
 

Other menu items are mee siam, mee rebus and mee soto ($3.50 each).
 

I am delighted with my new find. Old Times is now top of my must-eat list in Bukit Panjang.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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4 Avocado toast with a difference

 

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SURREY HILLS GROCER

Where: 01-01 D'Arena, 511 Upper Jurong Road

Open: 9am to 9pm (Tuesdays to Sundays), closed on Mondays

 

The two-month-old Aussie-inspired Surrey Hills Grocer is Joo Koon's shiny new draw.
 

The 38-seat, pet-friendly cafe is also my new favourite brunch spot.

 

A signature is the Crayfish Benny ($24), a take on Eggs Benedict with marinated sweet crayfish, coated in a lush hollandaise sauce made with crayfish reduction for extra depth of flavour.
 

I do not usually care for avocado toast, but its spin here ($19) includes mashed avocado, whipped ricotta, Vegemite emulsion and almond spiced dukkah. The additions of Vegemite and dukkah make me order it every time.Another stand-out is the Tasmanian salmon ($26) on barley risotto, topped with marinated roe. It is available for lunch (11am to 3pm) and dinner (6 to 9pm). The plump grains of barley, cooked in a risotto, soak up the mushroom reduction delectably.
 

When I am done eating, I work off the calories by prowling the adjoining 3,000 sq ft grocery store, where 80 per cent of products are sourced from Australia by Ms Pang Gek Teng, 33, co-founder of Surrey Hills Grocer. There is a vibrant array of fresh produce, cheese, wine, snacks and spices to check out.
 

Before leaving, I get a cuppa of Proud Mary Coffee to go, along with a scoop of ice cream from home-grown brand Creamier.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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5 Ideal for a quiet cuppa

 

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SUZUKI GOURMET COFFEE

Where: 10 Chin Bee Avenue

Open: 10am to 5pm (Tuesdays to Fridays), 10am to 4pm (weekends), closed on Mondays and public holidays

 

This is the most peaceful spot, hidden in the Boon Lay industrial area, to read a novel or have that heartfelt chat.
 

The cafe specialises in coffee, which has been ground and roasted at its adjacent roastery since 1979. Prices start at $7 for a long black and $7.50 for filtered coffee.
 

My usual order is the hot flat white ($8), which is served on a small wooden tray with a Lotus Biscoff cookie. Creamy Hokkaido milk is used and can be swopped for Japanese soya milk at no extra cost. Green tea lovers might enjoy the Kyoto uji matcha or Kyoto uji houjicha (from $8).
 

While the cafe does not serve food, it switches things up with new seasonal drinks, such as the current Suzuki Fortune ($9), an iced pineapple tangerine fizz with festive vibes.
 

Photo tip: While the Japanese-style wooden teahouse interiors are lovely enough for the 'Gram, save some shots for the coffee-themed murals out front which scream industrial chic.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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6 Perfect after a morning walk

 

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FENG ZHEN LOR MEE

Where: 03-146 Taman Jurong Food Centre, 3 Yung Sheng Road

Open: 5.30am to 2pm (Tuesdays to Saturdays), closed on Sundays and Mondays

 

Indisputably the best meal after a morning jaunt through the neighbouring Jurong Lake Gardens, this lor mee - for $3 - comes loaded with a generous heap of ingredients, including crispy pork balls, sliced fishcake and fatty pork belly.
 

The fried pork balls add a nice crunch without being greasy. The gravy is just the right consistency - not too gooey or clumpy - coating the noodles and ingredients perfectly.
 

Mix everything together - with the quintessential vinegar, minced garlic and chilli - for the best balance of spice and tang. It is certainly the breakfast of champions.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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7 Porridge the whole family can agree on

 

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SOH KEE COOKED FOOD

Where: 01-44 Jurong West 505 Market & Food Centre, 505 Jurong West Street 52

Open: 8am to 7pm (Wednesdays to Fridays), 9am to 7pm (weekends), closed on Mondays and Tuesdays

 

This stall's porridge, paired with silky steamed chicken, is the stuff of many cherished family meals in the west.
 

Its quality and prices - which start at $2 for chicken porridge - have stayed consistent through the years.
 

My standard order is cuttlefish porridge ($3), a cross between congee and Teochew porridge - with the rice grains cooked till very soft and the gruel almost watery.
 

On its own, the porridge is tasty enough, but gets a boost from lashings of sliced cuttlefish, topped with julienned ginger, soya sauce, sesame oil and pepper.
 

Porridge, with a side of tender, succulent chicken, served with a tangy chilli sauce, sets you back $4.
 

Although Chinese New Year is over, Soh Kee offers its own version of yusheng all year round. Called abalone salad (from $7), it is a refreshing heap of shredded lettuce, carrots, ginger, crackers and imitation abalone, dressed in sesame oil and lime juice. A perfect ending to family night.

 

 

Happy - is what we should be, always.

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