Lee Kui (Ah Hoi) Restaurant
8, 9,10 Mosque Street Z62223654
Open 11am to 2.30pm / 5pm to 10pm
WALKING into Lee Kui (Ah Hoi) Restaurant in Chinatown is a bit like stepping back in time. The décor hasn't changed much since it moved into its Mosque Street premises in 1985 but the no-frills old school atmosphere is part of the charm.
It's been serving authentic Teochew cuisine for more than four decades now, since the late father of current owner and head chef Lee Huat Kee, founded the business in 1968.
The name comes from the now-defunct Lee Kui coffee shop in Upper Pickering Street, where the business operated and has been kept because it is the name its long-time customers know.
Ah Hoi was the nickname of the senior Mr Lee, but it also means "crab" in Teochew . Needless to say, cold crabs - a staple in Teochew cuisine - is one of the restaurant's signature dishes.
Many diners order it as an appetiser and it's a great way to start the meal - even if it means getting your hands dirty before you even touch your chopsticks. The steamed crustacean is served cold, as the name implies, and arrives on a plate looking like a whole crab, except it's been broken up and re-assembled like a jigsaw puzzle.
The best way to enjoy the fleshy claws is to eat it plain to savour the freshness and juiciness of the meat, though a sweet-sour plum sauce is offered on the side.
Other traditional Teochew favourites served at Lee Kui include jellied pork, a deep fried pork-and-liver roll and steamed pomfret so soft that the flesh falls off the bone. The yam ring is fried till the crust is deliciously crisp though it could use a bigger potpourri of ingredients.
Mr Lee says he's been learning the trade since he was a mere 11-year-old, watching his father and other chefs from the wings. The 55-year-old father of three, whose wife mans the cashier's till, notes that many Teochew restaurants have disappeared from the local scene.
"Teochew cuisine is not as popular as that of other dialects, so with our ageing clientele, there are fewer people who will truly appreciate traditional fare like steamed pig intestine stuffed with glutinous rice," he says.
Regardless, Mr Lee is determined to soldier on for as long as he can, for the sake of his loyal customers who fill the place up during meal times, especially on weekends.
He says: "A lot of food out there is mass produced, but that's not how I want to do things. Like our yam paste is made from scratch, whereas some places just pre-order them or make them from a pre-mix."
It's for this reason that he doesn't have expansion plans on his mind, nothwithstanding the roaring trade Lee Kui does. "It's easier to keep control if I keep things small the way it is now; that way I can control and maintain the quality," he said.
By Dylan Tan
Lim Joo Hin Eating House
715 Havelock Road
Open 11am to 4am daily
TEOCHEW porridge is usually top of the list when eating light comes to mind. And these few weeks are the best times for Teochew porridge - after the year-end celebrations, but before the feasting for Chinese New Year begins.
Lim Joo Hin Eating House is one of the better known ones here. The porridge outlet, with an air-conditioned seating area next door, has been popular with daytime and supper crowds for 20 years.
The shop was started by owner Feng Ai Lian's father-in-law and did not start out selling porridge. Ms Feng said it used to sell Hainanese curry rice.
Her husband, Tong Suan Toom, used to help out at the stall, but 20 years ago, upon seeing many Teochew porridge stalls in Geylang do well, he decided it was time for a change.
Since neither he nor her are full-fledged Teochews - he's Hainanese, she's Cantonese-Teochew - they hired a Teochew chef.
There is a lot of cooking to do each day, as the shop offers more than 60 dishes to diners to choose from. Deciding on what to eat can be tough, but the popular dishes one cannot go wrong with are the braised duck and braised pork, which come with fragrant gravy.
On the vegetable front, the braised cabbage is tasty, soft but not mushy.
Other standard dishes include bittergourd and leek.
Madam Feng sells a sardine-like fish, wrapped in preserved salted mustard greens and slow cooked with chilli for eight hours. The slightly sourish-salty gravy goes well with porridge.
The fish is tender, but because it has many tiny bones in it, impatient diners may find this a tad too much work to enjoy.
The shop obliges with a solution. She says: "We have two versions of this. Another pot of fish is cooked even longer, so the bones are soft enough to eat, but the meat is slightly tougher."
The daily choice of dishes does not change, but sometimes, more upmarket fare such as steamed lobster and crayfish are available, "depending on whether the day's offerings are fresh", she says.
The stall goes through 50kg of rice each day, and each bowl of porridge is served warm.
"We discard the porridge when it turns cold," says Madam Feng.
Some diners have complained that eating here is pricey. Our meal of four dishes, inclusive of fish, two bowls of porridge and drinks, cost $18.
"People complain we are expensive, but actually, our portions are bigger," says Madam Feng.
By Tay Suan Chiang
Joo Seng Teochew Porridge
14 Cheong Chin Nam Road
Tel 6463 0768
Open 9.30am to 4am daily
MOST food stall owners will tell you they run their business for noble reasons such as passion, filial piety or a desire to keep a part of their culture alive.
Not Koh Kee Seng of Joo Seng Teochew Porridge. Asked what his motivation for running the food outlet is, the 51-year-old looks you straight in the eye and says: "Money."
It's hard to tell if he's joking, something you find yourself wondering about during a conversation with him, thanks to the deadpan delivery of his responses.
He says with a straight face: "My head chef knows better than I how the stall began; I'm just in charge of dishwashing."
Then he breaks into a small smile and tells the story of this Bukit Timah food outlet known for its fish and braised duck.
Joo Seng Teochew Porridge opened in March 2002 under a different owner, but was relatively unknown until Mr Koh took over in 2004.
The first thing he did was lower the prices, because he thought them too high for a stall that was then a little-known player operating amid bigger, better-known names such as Al-Ameen Eating House, Boon Tong Kee and Johnson Lock Roasted Duck.
He says: "To be honest, the previous owner wasn't Teochew, so he didn't know Teochew taste buds very well."
Mr Koh kept the head chef, who used to have his own Teochew porridge stall in the old Gay World Park, but made a major change in the sourcing of his ingredients: instead of having them delivered to the stall every morning, he took it upon himself to go to wholesale markets the night before to pick them out himself.
He explains that it is crucial where the fish come from; the same type of fish can be found in Thailand and Indonesia, for instance, but the quality would be different. When a kitchen opts for delivery, wholesalers lump the fish together so one never knows where the fish is from. By going personally to the markets, he ensures that he gets and serves up only the freshest, highest-quality ingredients.
Joo Seng also pays attention to the consistency of the porridge. The rice grains are whole, which is how Teochew porridge should be, and the rice so fragrant that its sweetness leaches into the broth.
The braised duck is deliciously tender. It is a little salty, but this is balanced out nicely when taken with a spoon of porridge.
It took Mr Koh two years to build up a solid following for the stall. Then construction for the new Beauty World MRT station started, right in front of the row of shops along Cheong Chin Nam Road.
Business took a hit, because customers did not know the shops were still operating behind the construction area.
Why not move?
He replies: "That's easier said than done. We've been here for 10 years already. As long as we can still make a small living here, we're happy."
By Natalie Koh
Tew Chew Street Tew Chew Porridge
#02-201 Chinatown Complex
Open 9am to 2pm; closed on weekends and PH
ALTHOUGH many stalls sell porridge in the sprawling food labyrinth that is Chinatown Complex Food Centre, Tew Chew Street Porridge still manages to build up a sizeable queue - and this is outside the peak meal times, like at 11 am.
The stall run by Tan Huat Seng, 58, and his 52-year-old wife is best known for its traditional method of cooking porridge - one earthen pot at a time, instead of in a large vat, all at once like at most other porridge places.
This, along with "beating" the rice, a Teochew reference to the act of constantly stirring the rice, is what gives the gruel its sticky consistency, says Mr Tan.
His congee (at $1.40 a bowl) sits somewhere between Teochew and Cantonese-style porridge: each grain of cooked rice is still distinct and firm, but the gruel is gummy and thicker than most Teochew versions.
This is paired off with a simple but tasty spread of side dishes that stoke a gamut of sweet, salty and sour flavours. The house speciality is the braised pork belly ($1.50 for a single portion), stewed for at least an hour till it is fork-tender, and served with pillowy squares of taupok.
The steamed pork is another favourite, its mild taste made punchy with freshly-chopped onions and chinchalok atop ($2). For additional kick, order the spicy hae bee hiam ($1), which is minced dried shrimp fried with a tinge of chilli, and best eaten with a squeeze of kalamansi.
Of course, what's a Teochew hawker stall without its steamed fish? Fish of different varieties cost between $3 for a one-person portion and $10 for a whole fish.
There is also an assortment of slightly sweet-cooked vegetables that changes daily (70 cents to $1).
The daily average of 10 side dishes is a modest spread, compared to the number of dishes offered at other Teochew porridge stalls; the number also pales in comparison to this stall's own hey day in the 1980s, says Mr Tan.
The stall was started by his late father in the 1930s along Tew Chew Street, where Central mall stands today. Mr Tan says before he came along and before the war, his dad was already running the stall.
The younger Tan joined the family business in the 1970s after his National Service. Back then, the stall put out at least 20 dishes a day, and hired two to three shifts of workers.
"We would have dishes like assam fish and tiger prawns, and we'd open late into the night," he recalls.
The stall has moved thrice, first, to a space opposite Hong Lim Plaza, then back to Clarke Quay's Ellenborough Street, and then to its current premises when the Ellenborough site made way for the building of the Clarke Quay MRT station in 1997.
The limited stall space in Chinatown Complex has compelled Mr Tan to be more selective in the dishes offered; he has also limited his opening hours to only the morning up till lunch time.
"It's so hard to employ workers these days. Nobody wants to be a hawker," he laments, but admits he wouldn't want his son, aged 14, to become one either.
"With an office job, you get a regular salary and fixed holidays. Isn't that so much better?"
By Debbie Yong
Xu Jun Sheng
121 Joo Chiat Road Z6348 0973
Open 11am to 9pm (Mon to Sat),
10.30am to 3.30pm (Sun); closed Wed
JOO Chiat Road may have acquired a bit of a sleazy reputation over the years, but everything about Xu Jun Sheng gives off a clean vibe.
Its newly renovated look with updated furnishings, cement floors and ample ceiling fans are matched by the clean flavours of its healthy dishes.
The latter will be a boon for those who prefer a lighter touch with condiments like vinegar and spices, but may disappoint diners seeking bolder flavours.
If anything, a visit to the comfortably empty space in the mid-afternoon is better described as a zichar outing. Some dishes are cooked with each order (which is quite a feat when they are entertaining a busy lunchtime crowd). The preserved radish omelette ($5), for instance, retains a thinness and crispiness reminiscent of Cantonese-style egg foo young.
The ready-made accompaniments to a Teochew porridge experience, such as fishcake ($2) or mixed vegetables ($3) are safe bets, albeit somewhat under-seasoned. In particular, the pork trotters ($8) could do with a richer gravy, though the meat itself is tender enough.
What stands out is the steamed garoupa ($15), which is fresh and free of any fishiness, steamed to order and with just the right amount of preserved Szechuan vegetables and sliced chilli to keep the broth tasty.
The brand was started by a Mr Koh over 60 years ago along Joo Chiat Place. It moved across the street to larger premises at Joo Chiat Road two years ago, and is currently run by a team of four siblings.
"This is a family business, so we're hoping our children will take over," says partner Koh Long Eng. "But the younger generation may not like it because there are many daily tasks and small errands to run. We're used to it but they are not used to the trouble."
"It's best to have someone in the family take over, so Singaporeans can still taste the authentic flavours of our homemade meatballs, tofu soup, five spice, and steamed fish".
By Tan Teck Heng
The Business Times/Knight Frank CEOs' Hawker Choices 2013 is a guide to the best street food in Singapore as chosen by Singapore's top executives.
How it works
A master panel of 10 distinguished professionals (listed below) created a master list of hawkers for each food category. This list was subsequently sent out to The Business Times' CEO Club, comprising all the top management of companies based in Singapore, who were invited to vote for their favourite stalls. The stalls with the most votes are then visited by BT Weekend's food reviewers and featured in a weekly spread in the Living section. The objective of this series is to create an unbiased guide to the best hawker food in Singapore, as well as create a platform to help preserve the old cooking traditions that are in danger of dying out. This series will run for 26 weeks, after which the content will be compiled into a guidebook, with sales proceeds to go towards furthering this and other charitable causes.
Our master panel members
Tan Tiong Cheng (chairman, Knight Frank Pte Ltd)
Alan Chan (CEO, Singapore Press Holdings)
Chong Siak Ching (CEO, Ascendas)
Elim Chew (president/founder of 77th Street)
Edmund Koh (chief executive and country head of UBS Singapore)
Professor Tommy Koh (Ambassador-at-Large, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Singapore)
Kwek Leng Peck (executive director, Hong Leong Asia)
Allen Lew (CEO, SingTel's digital life division)
Ng Lang (CEO, URA)
Philip Ng (CEO, Far East Organization)
Seah Kian Peng (CEO, NTUC Fairprice Co-operative Ltd)