Saturday, April 14, 2007

Sweat It Out

Sik Wai Sin Eating House
287 Geylang Rd
Singapore 389334.
Tel : 6744-0129
Closed on Wednesdays

Tuck along one of the shop house units between Lorong 13 and 15 Geylang lies a culinary legend that is now happily retired and collecting cash from diners to his signature restaurant in across Singapore’s red light district area. Sik Wai Sin which means to eat first literally in Cantonese is widely considered as one of the old guards in Geylang. Currently run by the retired chef’s two sons, with one taking care of the kitchen and the other overseeing the dinning area, it's a non pretentious eating place that sees queues of people on every day that it is opened for business. As the name implies, the objective there is to eat first and there after you can talk about anything else under the sun at another place. Why so? Because other than the food which the main draw, there is nothing really else that will attract you to linger for a moment longer when you are done. If you are looking to being pampered, dinning in comfort or service, this is not the place. I am not saying the service is bad, it’s just so basic enough to give you what you need to have for your meal and that's about it. There are no menus to look at, not even on the wall. The dinning environment seats only about fifty people is like that of the weather in New Delhi during the summer months. Customers who come in already know what they want and new customers are often referred by the word of mouth from existing ones and more or less have been briefed on what to go for and expect when dinning here. Regulars will also know that ideally one should wear as little and as thin as possible but still in keeping up with decency as you are bound to sweat it out while enjoying the delicious food here. This restaurant does not hype on media publicity and only displays a modest accreditation by Makansutra.

The food is the main draw why people flock to this restaurant despite its challenging environment. I have been here since my army days (about 15 years ago) when the senior chef was still helming the kitchen and the younger son was understudying the success of his father by assisting him in preparation of certain dishes. Without a menu, the dishes were always remembered by heart from the workers to the regular customers. Though it is just basic simple Cantonese “Cze Char” or literally cooked to order dishes that go very well with plain rice, it's the quality of ingredients and chef skills that make the customers willing to endure the heat and pay top dollar for such fare. I must admit that prices here are more similar to that of Crystal Jade levels than any other regular heartland Cze Char stalls, but the serving are very generous with top quality ingredients. There are only about 10 items on the mental menu, which are:

Herbal Black Chicken Soup
Watercress and Pork Rib Soup
Tofu Prawns
Steam Pork Patty with Salted Fish
Stir Fried Beef with Oyster Sauce over Kai Lan
Steam Song Fish Head with Fermented Tau Cheo (Yellow Bean) Sauce
Braised Pork Ribs with Bitter Gourd and Fermented Black Beans
Sambal Kang Kong (Water Convolvulus) with Belachan
Sweet and Sour Pork

With such a small menu, there is only one chef (younger son) helming the wok and an assistant to look after the steamers for the steamed dishes and soups. Because it’s always a full house, be prepared to wait for your food and they do not come all at once in order as in who gets a table first. Rather the chef cooks the food in batches so for example a batch of sweet and sour pork might go to the few tables that are already waiting and the chef goes on to cook another batch of Tofu Prawns before coming back to cook the next batch of orders for sweet and sour pork again.

From the menu, the champions have to be the Steamed Fish Head, Tofu Prawns and Sweet and Sour Pork. Though I am not a fan of fish head dishes, I still appreciate the culinary magic that these guys are able to put together for this dish. While it may be seemed to be healthy dish, it is only if sans the crispy pork lard pieces, which are indispensable components of the dish. The steamed fish head which is smothered with a delicious fermented yellow soybean sauce (tau cheo) that has been cooked with garlic, ginger and other ingredients. Topped with the pork lard pieces, the fish was sinfully good with heavenly taste notes of the fragrant sauce and extra sprinkle of fresh coriander leaves, spring onions and chilies. For many others who were eating here, it was a must on their table.

The Tofu Prawns awed me with their taste and quality of ingredients. Using large wild “Ang Ka” prawns which are the benchmark of quality, they gave a lot more bite and are much tastier than commercially farmed prawns. This dish is comfort food to me with the prawns cooked with the silken tofu in a superior oyster sauce. It is so tasty that u can just lapped it up with a bowl of plain rice.
Steamed soups are an integral part of Cantonese cuisine and they are often prepared with ingredients meant to nourish the body and cleanse the palate. Here the main soup is the Steamed Black Chicken Soup with Chinese herbs and Wolfberries. A nourishing broth, its carries the essence of a whole baby black chicken with Chinese Herbs like Dang Gui, Huai San and Wolk Berries. The other popular choice is their Watercress and Pork Rib Soup which is a popular household classic with nothing to shout about.

While the menu is limited, it seems that the main focus of the dishes is on pork recipes. Some of the house favourites are Steam Pork Patty with Salted Fish , Braised Pork Ribs with Fermented Black Beans and Bitter Gourd. Between the two I prefer the former with the salted fish evolving pockets of pungency in between the well marinated mince pork giving it a lovely savoury delicious taste. The black bean pork ribs were also well received by many as we observed in other tables but the ultimate champion of the champions for me is their Sweet and Sour Pork which is out of this world fantastic. Many Cze Char places and restaurants often give you over fried pork that taste like pork jerky or bak kwa in a tomato ketchup based sauce. Sik’s version by far is the best for me and can even put some fine Chinese restaurants to shame. You get huge chunks not dices of well marinated shoulder collar meat (wu hua rou) fried to a lovely crisp and toss with a good quality plum sauce enhance with a touch of ketchup and kumquat oil. Fresh tomatoes and cucumber wedges compliment the sweet and tangy pork pieces spiced with red onions. This is a must have on every visit.

For vegetables, regular leafy greens like kailan and water convolvulus (kang kong) are the main staples. Between the two, the Kang Kong is a recent addition done the usual style with sambal belachan. I prefer their Kailan but added on with sautéed beef slices. Over years, their version has transformed from bicarbonate tenderized slices, to one of better quality beef used with more robust meatiness and natural tenderness. Paired with kailan, this dish also emphasizes on “Wok Hei” or wok flavour the is created by sautéing the ingredients over high heat which ultimately gives the beef its lovely aromas.
If you don’t take beef, u can have the kailan lightly sautéed with garlic or the newly added Sambal Kang Kong. On other days, remember to ask for their house specials.


Anonymous said...

I totally agree. This is a die-die must try place. But be prepared to pay for the premium price, yet humid environment.

Verdict: Never failed to eat at this place since my grandparents generation....YUM!!

Coolchef said...

Well, this place has a sucess story based on keeping the menu small so that the Chef can stay focused on the few items and do it really good. The premium prices are justified from the quality of the ingredients used in their cooking and their business just grew by the word of mouth, which is the most trusted form of advertising