Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Next Time You're In Singapore

“Food is one of the saving graces of Singapore. Otherwise, this place is so squeaky clean and boring,” jokes street food guru K.F. Seetoh.

You may recognize Seetoh from his guest judge appearance on the season finale of Top Chef D.C., when the four finalists traveled to Singapore and immediately duked it out amidst hawker stalls. Seetoh has been a food celebrity in his native Singapore years before the show, a result of his best selling publication, Makansutra (considered the authority to eating out in Singapore/South East Asia). It has become the veritable bible for food-lovers looking to navigate Singapore’s vast network of hawker stalls.

Seetoh will be traveling to New York City from June 20th – 21st and available for in-person or phone interviews. We would like to encourage you to speak to Seetoh about the Singapore hawker culture and the multi-layered flavors of Singaporean cuisine. Seetoh is also available for cooking demos.

For Seetoh, there is but one cuisine that he holds dear to his heart, the cze char (Hokkien for “cook, fry”) restaurants. Cze Char is a hidden sub-culture within Singapore’s foodie community, one that visitors should not miss – a food borne from centuries of cross-pollination of cultures and primarily ethic cuisine, cze char is derived from the Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka and Teochew communities. Cze char eateries are typically found only in Singapore and neighboring Malaysia and have flown under the radar of many a foodie who doesn’t know the food culture of both these countries well.

More than just about the food, typically, these are true Singapore family restaurants – on weekends, families congregate in such outlets as these places offer up dishes that are well-known across generations and sometimes difficult to replicate at home.

What does Seetoh love about cze char? “It’s not yours, it’s not mine, and it’s a combination. Get it?” Mr. Seetoh explains. “Think about Indian cooks that fry noodles in woks like the Chinese; Hainanese cooks that make up a bloody good curry. These tastes are not tied to a specific culture or ethnicity. They originated from sheer ingenuity and desperation.”

Here are a few of Seetoh’s five favorite places to eat cze char in Singapore:

JB Ah Meng (Geylang, Lorong 3. Tel: 65-6741-2418): “Even Ferran AdriĆ  [chef of El Bulli] fell head over heels for the crispy tempura prawns. They are coated with salted duck-egg yolk and batter-fried sweet-corn kernels,” says Mr. Seetoh.

Sin Huat Seafood (Geylang, Lorong 35. Tel: 65-6744-9755): When Mr. Seetoh brought Anthony Bourdain here for an episode of “No Reservations,” a food show on the Discover Travel & Living Channel, the celebrity chef had to wait close to one hour just like everybody else. “The owner saves his best dish for last: a Crab Bee Hoon (crab stir-fried with rice vermicelli) because it trumps everything else,” he says.

Siang Hee (89 Zion Rd. Tel: 65-9736-4067): It’s not just the deep-fried pork knuckle — which is first steamed, then air-dried, and finally deep-fried to achieve extra crispiness — that’s delicious. It’s the addictive dipping sauce, made from chili, lime, and apricot jam. “When you put it in your mouth — fireworks,” says Mr. Seetoh.

Joo Hing (360 Joo Chiat Rd. Tel: 65-6345-1503): In traditional Chinese cooking, steamed fish head — usually from cod — is seasoned with a simple douse of soy sauce and ginger strips. But the folks in this cze char eatery layer on a paste of Chinese miso (fermented beans), ginger, lime, chili and soy sauce. The end product is buried in crispy lard cracklings.

Lai Huat Seafood (72 Horne Rd. Tel: +65-6299-3024): Mr. Seetoh’s choice for the ultimate beer food, the deep-fried pomfret has been a signature of this eatery for over half a century. The fish’s flaky, sweet flesh is perfectly balanced with a layer of sambal (a chili-based sauce), which is smeared over the entire fish. Be wary of the spice level. “You’ll be breathing out of your mouth,” says Seetoh.

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