Saturday, February 24, 2018

Sinpopo at Joo Chiat Road

In Singapore's highly competitive restaurant scene, it is quite difficult to write about food because somehow they get outdated quite fast!

Fortunately, unlike some other establishments I've written about, Sinpopo is still going strong.  Although, it looks as though they expanded the menu since I went...

Sinpopo is run by the folks behind Awfully Chocolate but this is completely different in concept, serving "old style" Singaporean food with a twist.  I came here with two lady friends and we had a good gossip, over luncheon meat crisps (terribly unhealthy), deep fried wantons  (scarcely less so), the crab meat bee hoon (my fave) and for dessert, gula melaka cake and brown butter sugee cake.  Washed down with Katong Jelly drink (red agar agar jelly in a 7-Up and soda mix).

Whilst I did feel that the gula melaka cake really brought out that gula melaka flavour, I was not sure that the brown butter flavour was really that prominent in the sugee cake.  Rather, the brown butter flavour was more obvious in the thin layer of butter cream icing the cake.  I was intrigued however by the whole idea of "updating" sugee cake using brown butter and so I was inspired to make my own version of brown butter sugee cake!

First of all, I had to learn how to brown butter.  Fortunately there's a pretty good guide here on Serious Eats.  Briefly, butter is melted and then boiled over the stove till the water evaporates.  As the melted butter continues to boil, tiny little particles of milk solids emerge and as these brown, they impart a nutty, caramel flavour to the butter.  However, you need to watch it carefully to make sure that the little flecks of milk solids don't burn!

My Brown Butter Sugee Cake
Having browned the butter, I then went on to make my sugee cake, which I've written about here.  I soaked my semolina in the browned butter and then made my sugee cake as per normal.  As usual, I did not put any icing or butter cream on the cake which enabled me to taste the "natural" flavours of the cake.

The verdict?  The colour of my sugee cake was a little darker than in the past - not so much a bright sunny yellow but a slightly browner shade.  As for flavour - well, I enjoyed the buttery flavour of the cake, but again the brown butter flavour did't really emerge.  I suspect that with the traditional marzipan and royal icing, the buttery flavour would be overpowered by the strong almond flavour.  It's probably better to take it to a different flavour profile altogether, add brown sugar in place of some of the white, and top with buttercream made with browned butter.. hmmm, seems to be what Sinpopo has done :-)

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Peacocking around in blue

How I love a new kebaya!

When I visited Penang last year, I paid a visit to the lady who made me my first kebaya all those years ago.  I didn't order anything then - my cousin was theoretically the one buying the kebaya and  we were in a hurry so I didn't have much time to shop on my own account.  But after leaving Penang, and a number of WhatsApps later, I had asked the proprietor to bring over a few blue kebayas when she next came to Singapore.

It was a tough choice, with dragonflies, floral patterns and ducks all fighting for my attention.  But my interest was first piqued by a turquoise blue kebaya with a brilliantly coloured pair of peacocks on the front in golden yellow and orange.  I wore it around Christmas, over pants.  And to the Peranakan mass on Chinese New Year eve over my most favourite green sarong skirt.  But somehow they didn't quite go...

My blue and red combination
 So this latest visit to Penang, I made another visit to the shop and came away with an order for a sarong to match my kebaya.  It's most CNY appropriate, all reds and oranges.  It is also very different from my rather staid and boring sarongs of the past, which were green or purple.

And fortunately enough, my aunt gave me a pair of shoes which her Mother-in-law gave her and which she didn't really feel went with her own clothing.  But it went very nicely with my peacocks and sarong skirt!

As many people have admired my kebaya, what has also been happening is that I have been giving the name of my kebaya contact to various friends and relatives, and even a few colleagues.  And because she comes down to Singapore quite frequently to "deliver" to her customers, you don't even need to visit Penang!  As such, a lot of them have ended up making purchases and so now I have now indeed acquired "most favoured customer" status.  Indeed she is quite well reputed, as her designs are quite unusual and different from the rather standard designs you get in the mass manufactured kebaya shops.  Of course, you pay a little more but I think it is well worth it.  You can find out more about County Fair Boutique on its Facebook page and also on Time Out.

I have to admit that my last visit, I didn't just buy a kebaya but also a chili hot cheongsam with beautiful embroidery below.  So maybe come Chinese New Year, there will be another photo update of my embroidered purchases.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Mum's Nyonya Cuisine, Penang

For a Peranakan haven like Penang, it can be surprisingly difficult to get good Peranakan food.  As my uncle said, "home food is best".
So Penang Peranakan families don't go out that much and it is not so easy to find a good Peranakan restaurant in Penang!  Last year, we visited this interesting restaurant near our hotel, in Nordin Street with its unique home environment, genial host and personal demonstration by his mother.  This time round, we were fortunate to have a good, authentic nyonya meal at Mum's Nyonya Cuisine which my relatives took us to.

This is my third food post out of the three posts on this Penang trip, and actually I could go on since I've not really completely covered my hawker food experience (aside from the "Balik Pulau" laksa mention). But then, I've a few earlier posts on this subject from previous visits too, and it is getting a little bit same-same.  I have however put up the shots on my Penang album on Flickr - so if you are interested, do hop over to take a look for what I ate at Jelutong Market, Kimberly Street and the eternal favourite,  New Lane Coffee Shop.

But since I haven't that many restaurant reviews, I'm pleased to devote this post all to Mum's Nyonya Restaurant.  Many Singaporeans are confused by Penang nyonya food because it has marked differences from the Singapore-Malacca brand of Peranakan cuisine.  For example, the use of "assam" flavours rather than "lemak" flavours (its a question of degree; of course Penang food has coconut as well just less so) and the more extensive variety of herbs used.  The influences are Thai, rather than Indonesian (so buah keluak lovers, I am afraid that your favourite dish is not so common here), although some all time favourites like beef rendang find their way everywhere!

Anyway, this is a good place to enjoy the Penang specialities, such as the acar fish (see the recipe here) which is a deep fried fish in a vinegary sauce (which pickles it, hence the name "acar"), and Ju Hu Cha (Cuttlefish strips fried with turnip/carrot/mushroom and rolled in a lettuce leaf) etc.  I also was introduced to a new dish, ikan purut or a fish belly dish cooked with lots of herbs and vegetables.  It is a Penang specialty, which is rather fiddly to cook so it is not surprising that many restaurants don't serve it.  ( See a recipe for ikan purut here.)  These are indeed unique dishes which are not really served in the Singapore Nonya restaurants here, so please do give them a try when in Penang.  After all, what's the point of going to Penang and then trying to look for all the Singapore-style dishes!
Ju Hu Cha

Achar Fish

Ikan Purut

But every dish was yummy and I truly enjoyed the meal.  The slight let down was dessert - not much choice and quite unmemorable (I don't remember what I had and didn't take a photo, which just goes to show how unmemorable I found it).

Better than the food was the company.  The Singapore delegation and our Penang relatives filled two large tables of the little restaurant.  One of my Penang uncles told us little stories about our family during the meal.  How our distant relative, who had been expelled from Indonesia during Confrontation and went back to China, managed to find his way to Penang and to our family home in Malay Street.  Although it had been so many years since his last visit, he remembered the name of the street in Hokkien (apparently, it is called "Thai Gu Hang") and once there, he recognised the house.  He waited outside for some time till my uncle returned and finally he was able to reunite with this branch of the family.  Since then, my Penang relatives hosted a family reunion in Penang and also visited their family members in China.  Because some used to live in Indonesia, they speak some Bahasa and still retain their Hokkien (in addition to Mandarin).  So they are able to communicate with my relatives (who don't speak Mandarin, only English, Bahasa and Hokkien!)  According to my uncle, they remember his great-grandfather (my great-grandfather) very fondly due to the assistance he had rendered them in their times of need.

After dinner, we went back to the family house.  My sister and brother-in-law had never visited before so for them, it was indeed a special experience.  My uncle showed us the improvements he had made since his last visit (he is a self-taught home restorer) and it is indeed impressive to see the progress he makes each time we visit.  Indeed it is the chance to reconnect with our Penang relatives which make each visit back so special.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Not such a slow durian season

As was the case last year, our visit to Penang was timed to coincide with what we hoped would be the peak of the durian season.  Unfortunately, as related my previous post, the lack of rainfall had caused a late and small durian harvest. This had prevented us from feasting on Orh Chi or "Black Thorn" durians when we visited Nibong Tebal.  Does this mean however that we were totally deprived of durians?  The answer, fortunately, is no.

It was a slow start.  We found a roadside stall on our way back from Nibong Tebal which sold "kampong" durian and a small selection of other durian varieties, which we brought back to my uncle's place for a light snack. The "kampong" durian is really from one of those wild roadside durian trees which people then pick up to sell.   They were not the creamiest nor richest in flavour.  But nonetheless we dug in enthusiastically and within minutes the durians were all gone amongst our large group.

We also had the chance to savour other yummy goodies as well, including the fermented rice snack called tapeh.  It's not easy to get in Singapore (unless you go to the Katong Antique House on East Coast Road which sometimes sells this on a Sunday morning) and is also not that common in Malaysia these days.  But of course my relatives know where to find it in Penang.  I have to say it is an acquired taste, but since my Father has been buying it off and on for years, we have somehow acquired it.  (My sister remembers him feeding it to her as a little girl!).

I also did not mention earlier that the other motivation behind our trip to Balik Pulau was of course to eat durians!  The hills behind the town apparently provide a conducive environment and geography for durians - the right amount of sunshine, drainage, etc.  Here, we could forget all about the late and small harvest.  The durian trees grow in the wild on either side of the road, as it wound through the hills.  My aunts kept telling me that there were durians all around but obviously you need to develop an eye since I only saw the very obvious ones where they were clearly visible against the sky behind.

The durian plantations on the hill typically have their own little stalls on the roadside where customers can sit and eat.  This is what we did last year.  This year, we ended up in the Bao Shang Wang durian plantation stall because my uncle's cousin's Friend owns it. We drove down this really steep road to get to the sheltered terrace where we would eat our durians.  Wow!  It was the first time I've ever eaten durians with such a gorgeous view in front of me!

View from Bao Sheng
Khun Po durian
What was truly very different, however, was the clientele.   Here, in the hills on the other side of Penang, a long car journey from the nearest town, was a bunch of skinny, tanned, Ang Moh Lang dressed like hippies!  Helping sort and clean durians, eating the durians, helping clear away the durian skins and seeds!   Apparently the Bao Sheng durian folk also do some homestay and somehow these chaps found out about it and come to stay.  It was a strange, somewhat surreal experience as I would never have expected to see so many non-Asians so far away from the main tourist spots and eating durians to boot!  It certainly bust the stereotype of the Ang Moh who can't abide the sight nor smell of durian.

Besides human beings, there were a number of dogs wandering around the place.  One or two were the "house dogs"; collared, sleek, plump. Others were strays; skinny, dirty.  Somehow they seemed fairly tame too.

So what did we eat?  We ate (in order of ascending sweetness) : D604; Xiao Hong (a rather orangey colour rather than red); and Khun Po (named after the gentleman who first cultivated it).  The folks who didn't eat durian (yes there were some in our party) were given watermelon and bananas.  We washed down everything with tea.

More durian sampling
And that was not all.  Apparently my uncle's cousin went somewhat overboard and arranged for us to visit a second plantation.  Ummm.... instead we got him to deliver the durians back to my uncle's place and he took them to our family home in Georgetown.  Where we ate them the next day!  Washed down with Chinese tea, to cleanse and refresh the palate, to better savour the next different durian variety.  Alongside, for the non-durian eaters were chiku, pomelo, and other tropical fruits.  Plus another unusual Penang kueh-kueh called "Ee yah kueh".   

So small harvest aside, we still managed to have a most satisfying durian holiday.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Other Side of Penang

Early this month, my extended family went back again to Penang for our annual visit.  This year, we had our largest group yet - my Dad, my uncle and two aunties, and five of us from the next generation (including two spouses)!  We met up with my Dad's Penang cousins, and went for our normal, extended foodie experience.

The family house
This year, however, we did things a little differently.  i.e., not just the Penang hawker food binge.  For the first time, we went to "the mainland".  For the uninitiated, the State of Penang is not just one island (Pulau Pinang) but extends also to a small region on the mainland, historically known as "Province Wellesley" in the days of the British and now called Seberang Perai.

It turned out to be quite an interesting drive.  We took the new second link to the mainland - an impressive causeway which is much longer than the first link, and with much less traffic too.  It's always nice to get a feel of the place, driving through the country and seeing what there is to see - not just the normal palm oil plantations but also factories, reminding me that Penang is one of Malaysia's manufacturing hubs.

We had a clear mission for our visit to the mainland.  First, to see if we could visit the family home of my great grandmother (father's mother's mother) in the little town of Nibong Tebal.  At the same time, to eat durians - the elusive "Orh Chih" or "Black Thorn", which apparently was first grown in Nibong Tebal and where therefore the best of this variety is found.  Lastly, we were going to eat yummy seafood in one of the well known seafood restaurants in the area.

Well, at least we managed one out of three!  This year's durian season is a little late.  There was not enough rain and so the harvest is also small.  So there was no "Black Thorn" available.  As for the family home, it turns out that it is hidden behind a row of shophouses.  Access is through a gap in the shophouses but it has now been blocked by one of those shuttered grilles across the entrance.  As we had not called ahead or attempted to contact the residents earlier, we could only peek at it from between the grilles.  Fortunately, the house looked quite well preserved (at least from the outside).

So we were left with lunch.  Fortunately this did not let us down.  Law Cheang Kee is well known for its excellent seafood and as we were early (due to the lack of durian and lack of access to the house), had no problem getting a table.  The restaurant filled up whilst we were there and people were waiting.  This is really a small town so the patrons must have driven from the surrounding areas to get here on their lunch hour.  Our pomfret was beautifully fresh, steamed to perfection and the other seafood dishes were really tasty and flavourful.  Everything was well cooked and I have to say that it was worth the lengthy drive.

Removing the peanut skins
Neither did we walk away empty-handed.  Nibong Tebal is well known, it appears, for its traditional Teochew biscuit shop Chop Chuan Guan, where biscuits are still made by hand every day.     It is like a factory, with a row of biscuit makers sitting in a row in the main shop.  In the shop next door, a girl was removing the peanut skins from the roasted peanuts.  It was quite fascinating, watching her skilfully and efficiently toss the peanuts on a large flat basket, till the skins separated from the peanuts.

The shop is famous for its unique and rare "duck neck" biscuit, or "ark-am"!  This biscuit has a crunchy peanut core, with a soft outer layer, and covered with a layer of peanuts.  It is rolled up into a thin roll and cut into long pieces, hence the name.  Certainly, no ducks were harmed in the making of this biscuit :-)  It is really quite yummy so I can understand the brisk business - visitors were coming in whilst we were looking around it, just to get a package of their favourite tau sar piah or ark-am.   Which is what I did, too.  I should have bought another packet!  Ah well, hopefully there will be a next time.

The next day, we went to Balik Pulau.  Balik Pulau literally means "back of the island" or "go back to the island".  It's literally on the opposite side of the island from Georgetown and there's a totally different, laid back atmosphere here.  But things are changing, as new developments are encroaching on this little town.  There's even an international school, the "Prince of Wales Island International School" which boards students whose families are presumably working in the region.

"Laksa cham"
We came here to eat the famed Balik Pulau laksa at Kim Seng Kopitiam.  But I have to admit that I did not eat the traditional laksa.  Instead, I had Penang Assam Laksa mixed with the lemak curry laksa (which we get in Singapore).  Here, they call it "laksa cham" and you can ask for it in stalls which sell both laksa varieties.  I really like the way the lemak gravy is livened up by the tangy assam gravy.

I was expecting to eat in one of those small street stalls but it was in a rather modern coffee shop.  We went for another bowl at a nearby hawker centre, where we also drank ampala and ate pasembur (the Indian rojak of Penang).  It was similar to our Singapore hawker centres.  Not so "balik" after all!

Overall, I enjoyed our visits to Nibong Tebal and Balik Pulau.  It took us to a very different side of Penang, outside Georgetown and away from the beaches where the tourists congregate.  A sense of what Singapore used to be like, and indeed what the bigger cities in Malaysia used to be like.  Hopefully, even as Penang continues to grow and develop, these little towns will continue to retain some of their charm and unique little gems like Law Cheang Kee and Chop Chuan Guan.  Looking forward to going back to Nibong Tebal for more food treats and of course, to see my great-grandmother's home in all its glory...

More photos (including food shots) on my Penang album on Flickr.


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