Dishes garnished with limp wafer flowers dyed a garish shade of pink. White wines that are too warm and red wines that are too cold, all served in the wrong stemware. No air conditioning. Plenty things about the past are plain nasty, yet we refer to it as the “good old days” – because nostalgia is indeed the best seasoning. We marinate in memories of old-school banquets and family meals being filled with that overwhelming feeling of being loved when ah mah (granny) put that prized cut of meat in our bowl; and associate kopitiam meals with being footloose and carefree as young people enjoying suppers with our kakis (pals) – a statement of independence made as young adults liberated from curfew. Indeed a taste of a dish from the past can bring memories rushing back, but it is often not just about the food. A whiff of a familiar aroma – maybe of grease and perspiration at a coffee shop, or of soya sauce, steamed food, air conditioning and slightly musty old carpets all blended together at an old Chinese restaurant – can do the same. That’s because dining is a sensual experience, and the best ones are etched in our minds like poignant scenes from a film. And those scenes we play in our heads time and again, long after that pretty Instagram shot is lost in a time and place crowded by empty moments.
YU SHENG PIONEERS: RED STAR
Started by the legendary “Four Heavenly Kings” of the local Chinese culinary scene – masterchefs Tham Yew Kai, Lau Yoke Pui, Sin Leong and Hooi Kok Wai – Red Star continues to be helmed by Sin, 86, and Hooi, 74, the two surviving members of a brotherhood forged in the kitchen.
The animated Sin and fatherly Hooi – who also owns the 50-year-old Dragon Phoenix restaurant – still come in daily to supervise the kitchen operations, and to make sure that old regulars get those special orders just the way they like it. Getting to hear stories of the past, first-hand from these living legends, is reason enough to visit the 39 year-old establishment.
The chefs were well-known for introducing and popularising myriad dishes that have become classics, such as yu sheng and fobo piaoxiang (deep fried yam ring with assorted vegetables), and they continue to be innovators, pushing out unique items such as a Dragon Phoenix bun that is as large as a dim-sum steam basket.
A ’50s banquet classic has also been reintroduced on the menu: a nourishing chicken broth served with a chicken thigh and two whole pieces of tender bird’s nest. Sin exclaims: “Back in the ’50s and ’60s, bird’s nests were cheap! A banquet dinner including this dish for an entire table would probably cost $80. These days, it probably costs about $800.”
Today, recipes have been tweaked to suit changing tastes, and the dimsum menu has been expanded from 40 to over 100 items.
Hooi says: “Diners today want choice. So we have about seven or eight varieties of steamed buns alone.” Yet, one thing remains unchanged: all the dim-sum items and dishes continue to be made from scratch, on the premises, by a team including chefs who have been with the restaurant for over 30 years. “It’s about being honest to ourselves and our diners.”
The restaurant itself is the stage for many milestones on the Singapore Chinese restaurant scene. Serving dim sum from as early as 7am, it was the first to introduce the Hong Kong concept of “morning tea”. It was also the first Chinese restaurant in its time to be carpeted, air-conditioned, and outfi tted with a stage for live bands – elements that have become the standard for generations of Chinese restaurants to come.
#07-23, 54 Chin Swee Road.
A CENTURY OF MURTABAK: ZAM ZAM
Your murtabak sizzles on a stove that is about 30 years old, cooked probably by a chef who has been perfecting his skills in the same kitchen for a decade. The shop you’re sitting in might just be the same unit that Zam Zam has occupied since 1908.
Founded by Abdul Kadir, an Indian Muslim from Kerala, it continues to be run by the family. The third-generation owner, Sulaiman C. V., 62, was handed the reins more than 20 years ago and went on to take over the unit next door.
A refurbishment in 2006 brought air conditioning to the upper floors that can seat 100, but the ground floor is still the same sweltering space bustling with activity and concentrated with a heady perfume of ghee, spices and grilled meat.
The shop might have introduced new items such as deer murtabak, but Zakariah Talib, its 67-year-old director who has known the family – and eaten at Zam Zam – since he was a child living on the streets, will have you know that the recipes are traditional and the taste is authentic.
The only difference: “A dish of murtabak was 50 cents in the ’50s – and is now $6!”
697/699 North Bridge Road.
OLD-STYLE STAPLE: YET CON
An elderly man keeps an eagle eye on every diner from his counter near the entrance. Armed with an abacus, he does the maths and wordlessly hands you the bill as you get ready to leave. We don’t know his name, but we know he is the last in the family to helm 73- year-old Hainanese eatery Yet Con.
The restaurant’s chicken rice – with matured chicken that is a lot more gamey in taste and cooked through with a dry, saltish skin – is an acquired taste. But those who know the old-school Hainanese style of cooking come here specifically for it.
The crisp pork chops drenched in a sweet-and-sour ketchup-based sauce, and served with leathery potato slices that are strangely addictive, scream home-style cooking. It takes someone who understands this style of preparation to appreciate the taste, but Yet Con’s old-world charm is universal – walls tiled halfway up the ceiling, tables numbered with stickers, even the chopsticks rolled in filmy paper napkins – will take just about every Singaporean down memory lane.
25 Purvis Street.
PERANAKANS’ LAST MEAL: GUAN HOE SOON
Its food is served on many a Peranakan’s first birthday, and is also on the table during the last banquet
held in their name. It is a curious honour to cater for wakes, but it is one which Jenny Yap, the 47-year-old third generation lady boss of Guan Hoe Soon, takes pride in.
“Many old Peranakans will specially instruct their families to have us cater food during their last rites – it’s the last banquet they throw and they want it done right.”
Started in 1953 by Yap Chee Kuee at 185 Joo Chiat Road, Guan Hoe Soon (named after his three sons, Kow Guan, Kaw Hoe and Kow Soon) is the oldest Peranakan restaurant in Singapore. It later moved to 214 Joo Chiat Road for expansion, and moved again to its current location four years ago, after losing the unit in an en bloc sale. Today, Yap and her sisters run three branches of Guan Hoe Soon together, but the Joo Chiat outlet remains the most iconic.
Traces of history still remain. The kopitiam chairs and heavy marbletop tables are “only “ 23 years old, and a glass cabinet proudly displays ornate Peranakan china – including a dining set used on the old premises, which is printed with the restaurant name and a telephone number that is all of five digits long.
The oldest chef has been with the eatery for more than 30 years, and the recipes passed down by the grandfather are still being followed. “One of the very few changes is that we use a blender to make the rempah (spice paste). With the expansion and a catering business, it is diffi cult to tomboh (pound) everything with a mortar and pestle!” Yap shares.
“We also use a little less oil when making the rempah to cater to the health-conscious – it actually makes it more challenging because the old-school chefs believe that ‘if it isn’t oily, it isn’t tasty’. But we reproduce the same flavours. I grew up helping my grandfather out at the shop and eating his food – I make sure the food tastes exactly like how I remember it!”
Curiously, the Yap family isn’t Peranakan. Yap senior was an immigrant from Hainan. He had learnt to make the dishes – such as the fish-maw soup with toothsome hand-rolled meatballs, and a subtly tangy ayam buah keluak (chicken with black nuts) with lifted flavours – while working as a housekeeper for a Hokkien-Peranakan family.
Given the stamp of approval the Peranakan community has given the eatery, it seems clear that ethnicity isn’t an issue – only taste matters.
38/40 Joo Chiat Place. Tel: 6344-2761
Dong Po Colonial Cafe offers confectionery created in the ’50s by Hainanese chefs who studied under British and French bakers during the colonial days. Albert Soh – the 67-year-old boss of popular ’70s bakery Tip Top located in Marine Parade, and now the patriarch behind the newly opened nostalgic cafe Dong Po – introduces some of the most retro snacks making a comeback.
“Back in the ’50s and ’60s, this was just called ‘Conversation’,” says Soh. And there’s a lot to talk about: The shortcrust pastry is filled with sugee cake covered with a layer of puff pastry. This is then crowned with royal icing and decorated with apricot jam. “They don’t make this anymore because it’s just too time-consuming!”
“Even though Hainanese cooks have been baking cakes since colonial days, Western confectionery became popular among the locals only in the ’60s and ’70s. You would find cake shops largely in the expat areas of Holland and Orchard, or Katong, where the wealthy people live, because back in the ’60s, a piece of cake cost about 10 cents – the same price as a bowl of noodles! The long cup was popular as it was similar to, yet smaller and cheaper than, cupcakes.”
You’ve had them as bread rolls filled with custard or cream, now meet the French-inspired version. The Soh family’s first baker learnt his craft from a French chef and thus created sweets slightly different from everyone else. “My grand-uncle has been making this since the ’30s, when he was working at a French cafe, and continued to do so when he started his own shop in Killiney. Those who lived in the Tanglin area (around the ’50s) would recognise this. In fact, a member of the (C. K.) Tang family recently came by just to have this. He said he had been looking for it for a long time!”