Sunday, June 22, 2008


Good to be blogging once again, after a hiatus of two months to the day. In the last few weeks I went through a bout of intense work-related pressure. Now that it's over, I can wallow in the pleasure, the relief, of dwelling on non-curricular priorities. Priorities like food, sleep, and the gentle art of doing nothing. Cocooned in this glorious mellowness, my mind is drawn to one question that has vexed me ever since I came to Singapore - the dearth of good Malay food available here.

Before I landed here, I thought I had a clear idea of the various categories of Singapore cuisine. The dominant was (Singlicised) Chinese food, of which Peranakan or Straits-Chinese was a subset. Indian-inspired stuff like Roti Prata and all, I had discussed in this blog before. And then there was Malay food, with trademark preparations like Nasi Goreng and Otak-Otak.

[Aside: I once read in Readers' Digest about an Indonesian restaurant serving Nazi (sic) Goreng. Dunno, maybe they meant Hermann Goreng. Of course, Emperor Nazi Goreng has since been immortalised for building the Great Wall of China. To keep rabbits out. Seen the Bigpond commercial?]

Anyways, it took me a few months in Singapore to realise things didn't quite work that way. The Bukit Timah Campus cafeteria does not yet have a dedicated Malay food stall. The soup joint occasionally serves Laksa (which is apparently Peranakan in origin anyways). Along with the usual Roti Prata, Briyani (sic) rice and Thosai, the 'Muslim' stall sells Nasi Goreng and Nasi Lemak. (I tried their Nasi Lemak once. They handed me a plate with a fried chicken wing, a slice of cucumber, a spoonful of Sambal, and a portion of what looked, smelled and tasted exactly like plain rice - not even a whiff of coconut.)

At the Adam Road hawker centre, you have Peranakan stalls selling Nasi Lemak, Mamak stalls selling Nasi Goreng, Malay-run stalls selling both Nasi Goreng and Mee Goreng (traditionally a Mamak staple). On my trip to Penang I had encountered a Chinese-run shop at Batu Feringhi that sold Nasi Goreng and Mee Goreng (and nothing else, as it turned out).

I guess this blurring of categories is due to several reasons. One is that Nasi Goreng and Mee Goreng have become almost generic preparations across communities, ubiquitous all over the Straits area. Secondly, due to this very ubiquity, they represent a feasible method of broadening customer-bases beyond one's own ethnic group. When a Tamil shop-owner, for example, seeks custom from other communities, what easier a way than generating a fried rice or fried noodles alongside his Thosai and Briyani rice?

This leaves several questions unanswered, though. Like why it's so difficult to get anything even remotely out-of-the-way in Malay cuisine. At any hawker centre you get a truly bizarre variety of Chinese-inspired stuff - chicken rice, oyster omelette (discussed earlier), even pig's organ soup. Mamak stalls offer their own respectably diverse range. But Malay food? Try looking for a Rendang at a hawker centre.

It is all the more surprising because Rendang is not exactly unknown in Singapore. Most caterers have it as an option, as do several upscale'ish restaurants. Funnily enough, though it is considered a creation of the Minangkabau people (thus properly indigenous to the Archipelago), the Peranakan seem to've co-opted it into their cuisine. As this review, or even this one, will testify.

My first proper encounter with Rendang also took place in a Peranakan restaurant. For almost a year since my arrival, my sole contact with the stuff was through the Rendang Burger at Burger King! Then last month I discovered this place called Curry Wok. It's located on a little lane off Bukit Timah Road just before Coronation Plaza, ironically walking distance from the Uni. Three more eateries neighbour it. One sells Thai, the second Penang cuisine, both fairly classy joints. The third is a typical chicken-rice joint, somewhat run-down and distinctly downmarket.

Curry Wok is certainly not downmarket. It is bright, well-kept, cheerfully informal. The service is genuinely warm; they seem to enjoy chatting with customers. I had a long conversation with a lady called Cat (short for Catherine!), who took pains to find out what selections from the menu I was likely to enjoy.

The solicitousness was not uncalled for; the place did have a diverse menu. Peranakan dishes such as Curry Fish Head and Sambal Sotong predominated. In addition it had Chinese-leaning items like braised pork knuckle and Century Egg Tofu, hardcore Straits stuff like Sayur Lodeh (a coconut-and-vegetable stew), and even chicken curry, whose roots can be traced, somewhat tenuously, to India.

I wasn't bothered with any of this, not after spotting the Rendang. It was not cheap, at $8 a plate. I ordered it together with a helping of rice (a Dollar extra) and an iced tea (don't remember how much it cost). The size of the helping was a shocker when it arrived. It was disappointingly small, mingy, almost miniscule! and no amount of shredded green onion sprinkled on top could make up for it. I chose a picture with a fork and spoon so as to give an an idea of the scale involved.

Rendang involves meat (lamb or, as in this case, beef) made with coconut milk and spices. It is left to cook slowly for hours, till the liquids thicken just short of drying up completely. Something like the Bengali Kosha Mangsho (which is undergoing a revival lately).

The respective spices and condiments used make a world of a difference, though. Kosha Mangsho eschews coconut milk and uses Garam Masala, cloves and cinnamon, making for a sharper, spicier experience. Rendang, on the other hand, uses lemongrass and Galangal, which adds a note of freshness to the dark, meaty flavours of the beef and the fattiness of the coconut milk.

I must say the Rendang was pretty well cooked. The sharp taste of lemongrass did not predominate, nor was it smothered under by the coconut milk. The meat was tender, but not the gooey paste that inexperienced cooks turn Kosha Mangsho into. Notwithstanding its dryness, it was pleasant to eat with rice. The small helping was just about enough for the helping of rice given. It did not fill up the stomach, which made the walk back a pleasant experience.

Will I be going there again? I honestly don't know. For now, I'm trying to locate other places that serve Rendang of the same quality, but with bigger helpings for the price. I'm sure such things exist!


Manohar said...

I have lived in Kuching Sarawak. I enjoyed the food there a lot.How ever the way Abhik enjoyed each dish and the details he gives is some thing wonderful. As I read I thought I was eating that food.

Abhik good job. I am sure you are a good cook too.

Megan said...

Abhik! You need to post more. I like your food blog because it reminds me of the wealth of wonderful cheap food in Singapore and its many nuisances. Please post more frequently.

zak said...

hi! chanced upon your blog - my suggestions for beef rendang and otherwise great malay food:

warong mak shukor at the coffeeshop at blk 203, toa payoh north - it opens only for lunch though, and is a short walk fr braddell mrt

hajah maimunah at jalan pisang off north bridge road, near arab street

Abhik Majumdar said...

Thanks for your suggestion, Zak! Will act on them as soon as work pressure eases a bit. Incidentally I've come across a couple more Malay joints (one of which seems perpetually closed!); I'll write about them as soon as I can.

ys said...

Aha! The good eater is back! Nice to know someone did suggest more places for you :). Have you tried them in this month long re-lag?

Anonymous said...

mmm......rendang.....shiok (great)....I'm from Singapore and Rendang is one of my favorite dishes, ever.

Rendang isn't really a hawker dish. For the best Rendang, go to one of the Nasi Padang Kopitiam (coffeeshop) style restaurants.

Here are some names:
Rendezvous Restaurant at the rendezvous hotel on bras basah road

sinar pagi nasi padang

river valley nasi padang

aroma nasi padang

Hajjah Monah

There are MANY others in Singapore as Nasi Padang becomes increasingly popular with more opening, but these are some of the best (Rendezvous is my personal favorite-Chinese ownership handed down after years in business, Indonesian chef). Do try other Malay local dishes like Nangka Lemak (jackfruit cooked in coconut milk), Mee Rebus and Soto Ayam.