Don’t Be Chain-ed Up: Local-Owned Zi Char And Homegrown Restaurants

Don’t Be Chain-ed Up: Local-Owned Zi Char And Homegrown Restaurants

Who says you’ve to stay beholden to prices of major chains when you’ve a bevy of much more affordable zi char and homegrown restaurants islandwide? Canto, Teochew, Hokkien — the choice is yours!
Mystickal / Melly W
Mystickal / Melly W

[ Food Week — Heritage Restaurants ] Prior to discovering heritage restaurants, I still stubbornly believed all food was somehow a close relative of, or at adjacent to Cantonese dishes. That was in part the prevalence of international HK chains, but also a product of my family’s eating habits.

Thus when a certain someone’s family brought me to Ming Chung, not only was I intimidated by the familiar yet foreign dishes (white lor mee, what is this sorcery!), I was as to whether I could adapt to the flavours.

When we arrived at MC, and we ended up loitering amidst stray wind and rain waiting for a table. Despite the unrelenting weather and crowd, I wasn’t too agitated; perhaps it was the brisk yet warm service, the strangely familiar scents, or the relaxed familial chatter of the restaurant that set me at ease.

Plastered on the far wall was the history of the place: MC is one of the few restaurants that specialise in Henghua cuisine — food from Putien in the Fujiian province that shares some hallmarks of Hokkien and Fuzhou food. However, since Putien is coastal, much of their cuisine draws from the sea — instead of the heavy flavours typical of traditional Hokkien fare, these items offer a more transient, but no less potent taste of the sea.

I’ve never been the biggest fan of Hokkien food for how dense and rich it is, but I found myself much more partial towards Henghua cuisine instead. Their mains tend to bloom with the brightness of fresh greens, tempered with the sweet brine of shellfishes.

For fellow newcomers, a good way to ease your way into the cuisine is through their signature white lor me: Also known as rickshaw noodles, instead of the thick, dark sauce of traditional lor me, you’re instead met with thick wheat noodles encircling a much more delicate potpourri of seafood, pork bits, fried beancurd skin, yam, and greens.

Another speciality of note is their fried batang fish! A product created by the convergence of Southern China and Southeast Asian gastronomical routes, the impeccable heat control and thin slices help keep the external layer taut and dry whilst retaining a moist and tender interior — a balanced symmetry between harmonious dichotomies.

[ Food Week — Heritage Restaurants ] Over these couple of years, I’ve been surprised time and time again by how different similar dishes can be when recreated by different dialect groups. And after tasting the variants, I’ve become even firmer a believer that we’ve to preserve these individual threads of heritage lest they become products of distant memory.

One of the dishes I tend to associate with the wrong dialect group is the quintessential fish (head) steamboat. It became one of my fav comfort foods as I was growing up, and whenever there were any signs of impending rain, I’d strongar-, suggest we get it for dinner.

So imagine my surprise when a certain someone’s fam decided to bring me to have fish head charcoal steamboat… in one of their fav Hainanese heritage restaurants, Jin Wee!

Located in Siglap in the unit next to the area’s Wine Connection stall (pst, you can cross-order from JW to there and vice versa btw!), as a testament to its reputation, meal times are characterised by extending to the far edge of its territory. Even then, you can still find hordes of eager patrons — families, couples, and friends alike — perched at its perimeter hawking for seats in eager anticipation.

As someone who never really had Hainanese food I was astounded by the restaurant’s popularity.

Oh, and they’ve these huge porcelain pots that sit amidst diners in the alfresco area as well. Housing both soups and pots of their renowned Jiao Hua Chicken, it’s very worth the order if you’ve the stomach space for it.

We ended up with an order of their Red Grouper Charcoal Steamboat, Hai Nan Pork Chop, Claypot Chicken, and Chap Chye.

The pork chops were as delightful as I’d expected them to be — the crunch they boasted under all the sauce would give even a good Korean fried chicken a run for its money! The fish steamboat had me ladling bowl after bowl because of how flavourful it was (defo on par, if not more, than the Teochew ver). The main difference was a subtle simmer of sweetness and the slightly thicker, almost milky texture courtesy of the sheer amount of yam present. The other two dishes were fab too: The veg was fresh and crisp, and the chicken was smooth and tender!

[ Food Week — Heritage Restaurants ] Singapore’s vibrant F&B scene cannot exist without the multiplicity of establishments that cater a variety of gastronomical experiences. Be it sinful local delights, elegant fine dining, or reliable international chains — these seemingly disparate segments form a cohesive, spirited whole that we have grown to love, but also take for granted.

As we extol the zeal and vigour of SG’s F&B, one group continues to be overshadowed by the accessibility of hawkers and the convenience of large chains: Heritage restaurants. (I’m guilty of this too — until the recent couple of years, I don’t think I’ve ever set foot in any of these.)

Mostly born during a period of entrepreneurial exuberance and during the cusp of burgeoning globalisation, these heritage restaurants are often a product of coupling the history of one’s rich cultural roots with SG’s unique brand of multiculturalism. The result is flavours that are reminiscent of an era long past, yet still familiar enough to evoke a sense of home, especially for those whose own history and heritage intersects these restaurants’.

And for many of us, these places stand as one of the last remaining pillars between a history we either have never known or aren’t privy to, and the sterile homogeneity of modernity.

It is this inimitable position of heritage restaurants that make them so valuable — they are living keystones of our history, and it’d be a shame to forsake them in favour of shiny new concepts that pander to aesthetics.

For those looking for their first foray into heritage restaurant, Beng Hiang (est 1978) is a friendly option for folks who enjoy old-school Hokkien dishes served with the boisterous flourish of 70-80s HK restaurants.

I’ve written about their dishes in detail prior, so here is a quick summary of what your first visit can look like:
Crispy Roasted Chicken ($20 for half/$38 for whole) — go away KFC, this is a must-get! No seriously, this puts everyone else to shame ok.
Traditional Hokkien Noodles ($10/$14/$18) — their signature; filled with goodies!
Oyster Omelette ($15/$28) — plump and juicy, yum!

For comparison, a meal like that will be a good 30-40% cheaper than at major chains. And you get larger portions too!

[ Food Review — Authentic Teochew food; just be willing to pay for their seafood ] Do you know what’s the biggest downside about living in my neighbourhood? No accessible good (I don’t mean crowded, I mean actually palatable and doesn’t pander to expat taste buds) zi char/casual non-chain Chinese restaurant in the area. Woe!

Sure, I did mention a couple of posts back that Mongkok Dim Sum serves pretty decent zi char dishes, but even then, it pales quickly in comparison to zi char/non-big chains or brands Chinese restaurants juggernauts around the rest of the island.

So it was a pleasant surprise when a certain someone told me that the son of Tai Seng/Macpherson’s Liang Kee Teochew Restaurant fame opened a branch in Sunset! (LKTR is famed for its Teochew-styled seafood and popular for not having a corkage fee too!)

We were quite lucky — we arrived right in the middle of dinner hour but were given a seat. Turns out we took up the last of their capacity, because a couple arrived no more than 5 mins after and were turned away. (Lesson learnt: Book during the weekend!)

Since we were utterly famished, we ended up ordering quite a few big dishes: Teochew Steamed Pomfret (their signature), Claypot Tofu, and Chinese Spinach (Amaranth) Soup w/ Fried White Bait.

Before you read further, here’s something important: If you visit — like me — with the idea that it’s an upscale zi char place, nope, scrub that out of your head. The prices are much closer to restaurant prices especially for their seafood dishes.

The food was pretty good! Still a bit pricier than I’d have liked — 3x for the size of a small pomfret is quite the premium, and not a mistake I’ll make again — but at least the flavours were refreshingly authentic. The fish was unsurprisingly beautifully cooked, with a zesty, clear broth that was better flavoured than most mediocre soups. (Goes esp well with rice!) I just wish the pricing was fairer!

The tofu was fab — delicate and pliant, coated in a rich yet not-too-heavy sauce, and accompanied with chunks of fish. If we’d asked for a version without garlic, I’d have been all over it! (Wish they’d more shrooms tho.)

But the spinach, my goodness, was my winner for the night. The soup was flavourful, the veg was fresh, and the white bait batter wasn’t too thick.

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