Da Shi Jia Big Prawn Noodle: The evolution of Singapore food

Singapore cuisine is undergoing puberty.  In the last decade of so, it has quickly evolved from simple, austere hawker food to the stand alone eateries with some even trying to elevate it to the level of fine dining! During this time, many players are experimenting with different models to cash in on a heritage brand name.  These investors would typically buy out a hawker’s brand and morph them into modern eateries island-wide.  There has been some successes, but many of them are dismal flops.  Instead of helping to preserve an age old brand, they have simply stripped a culinary gem of its soul and turn it into comestible zombies.

The very nature of hawker food is artisanal.  Each bowl of noodles is more than a sum of its parts.  You can produce the different components in a central kitchen and teach someone how to put it together, but only a hawker master who had spent years cooking the dish is able to breathe life into the dish. That is why, most people identify hawker stalls by the hawker, rather than the signboard.

If this trend continues, our shopping centres will be filled with soulless branded eateries! (Many of them already are)  We need to have mechanisms designed to help hawkers break out of their hawker center mold and set up their own cosy eatery without the need for aggressive expansion from the word go.  It is a perhaps a pipe dream in today’s competitive market where high rentals are necessitating higher volume sales.  Many eateries achieve this by rapidly expanding in order to justify a central kitchen.  But, is it possible to have a model where the economics are such that the owner hawker is happy and financially comfortable with just the one eatery?  I think, it is.  It is the reality for many eateries in Japan and elsewhere already.  The only boundary that needs to be breached is the perceived price ceiling of the dish.

The place that I am recommending today is an example of what might work.  The young couple behind it are Seth, whose father owns Big Eater Seafood, and Yvonne, a graduate who left her bank job to join her husband in their new venture.  Our young hawkerpreneurs have set up an eatery which I feel has the right balance of comfort, price and quality that Singaporeans can accept.  Essentially, they are selling a quality bowl of prawn mee in a setting and at a price that is comparable with the ramen shop just a few doors away!


大, 大大, and 大大大 Prawns

You might be wondering why the character 大 (big) is repeated three times in their shop name “大食家大大大虾面” Or, maybe you didn’t even notice it?

Well, their prawns come in three sizes. 大, 大大, and 大大大.  So when you order a bowl of prawn mee, you get to choose the size of prawns you want!  Quite innovative.

The eatery has been opened for three months and they took some time to find their footing.  Some of their early reviews were quite indifferent.  But kudos to the young couple who continued to work hard at improving their dish.

The prawn stock is very good.  It is a Penang style stock which is bright orange in color rather than the local version which is dark brown.  They had initially added the sambal chilli into the soup  which is what is usually done in Penang style prawn mee, but found that some customers weren’t used to having a spicy soup.  So they decided to serve the chilli separate.  The soup is reminiscent of the one from Wah Kee prawn mee, although it’s not quite as robust.  Still, it is satisfying enough. 4.25/5

The dish which really stood out for me was the big prawn white beehoon which is a misnomer since it is quite different from the seafood white bee hoon that we are familiar with.  The main difference is the stock used to cook the beehoon.  Instead of using a chicken or pork stock, Seth uses their robust prawn soup which tints the beehoon with an orangey hue such that it really can’t be called “white” beehoon anymore.  After charring the beehoon with fire and smoke from the wok, the prawn soup is added and the sauce is reduced.  This not only infuses the beehoon with the irresistible crustacean flavour, but also reduces the stock and concentrates its flavour!  What results is an umami bomb which explodes with every mouthful.  I would choose this over a standard white beehoon any day!   4.5/5

What does need more work is their dry version which really lacks punch.  What it needs is a good prawn oil or concentrated prawn broth in order to make it “prawn” mee.  If not, it just tastes like Hokkien noodles with black sauce. 3.5/5

A nice side dish to order is their prawn cakes.  The filling is made from chopped fresh prawns and sotong (squid) paste and has a good bouncy bite.  4.25/5

Conclusion

Really promising eatery opened by Gen Y hawkerpreneurs.  I am hoping that they will not be tempted to expand too quickly but just focus on maintaining and improving on the quality of the dishes first.  The big prawn white beehoon is the dish to go for.  There is still some room for improvement for the prawn mee soup and plenty more room for the dried version.

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Bakery Brera: The Evolution of HDB Bakeries

It is amazing how the HDB bakery has changed over the years!

I still remember the bad old days in the 70’s when there was only one type of bread.  Those were the days before Gardenia introduced sliced white bread which was “so good you can eat it on its own”.  In those days, when mum told me to go buy bread, it meant running down to the kek ai (grocery store) to pick up a loaf of traditional kaya toast bread which the lady would slice on the spot.  They always made sure that they never slice it all the way through, such that all the slices were still attached on one side.  I was told that it was because they didn’t want to severe the relationship with the customer!  Even as a kid, I suspected it was just an excuse to make it easier to pack the loaf into the plastic bag!

I still remember the day mum brought home some hot dog buns from a brand new bakery at Blk 233 Toa Payoh Lor 8.  It was quite a revelation and I fell in love with the soft, sweet, pillowy buns with that first bite.  Nowadays such buns are so common that our kids take them for granted.  But in those days, a pack of fresh buns and a can of Tulip hotdogs was enough to make me happy as a puppy!  (Actually they still make me happy, but the hot dogs have to be upgraded to the deli version)

My earliest memories of European breads was the introduction of baguette sandwiches by Delifrance in the 80’s.  Then in the nineties, bakeries like Cedele started to appear.  Over the last few years, European style breads has started to invade the heartlands with local bakers making the crusty loaves.

Most Singaporeans are familiar with the ubiquitous “French loaf” which is used to accompany curry chicken or fried with eggs to make Roti John.  These “French loaves” have been around for the longest time and was even used in the 50’s to for chilli crabs before they were replaced with the fried mantou.  However, these “French loaves” are probably as close to an authentic French baguette as fried “Singaporean noodles”.

Thankfully, home grown bakeries like Bakery Brera are now making artisanal loaves available in the HDB heartlands!  I’d bet that many people would have walked pass this unassuming little bakery at Empress Mall without even bothering to walk in. (I don’t know why its called a mall when it looks like just another row of HDB shophouses).

I would have done the same too except for the fact that someone had told me that this unassuming little bakery has recently beaten the big boys and got selected to supply the sourdough bread for Wolfgang Puck’s new restaurant at Changi Airport!  What is more surprising is that the baker is a local Malaysian boy who had taught himself how to bake his artisanal loaves from books!

The owners here have made it their mission to provide only all natural loaves made without the use of bread improvers and the breads here are made from French flour using all natural ingredients.  They are also using a locally harvested sourdough starter which was “hatched” right here in the bakery over a year ago!

I love the baguettes here.  When you crack it open, you are greeted with a lovely crumb structure and the aroma of toasted wheat!   I brought one home and had it with some French butter and  was reminded yet again of the adage that the simple things in life are often the best!  4.5/5

It’s already past Easter but they are still  baking their hot cross buns because their customers are still asking for them!  It’s no wonder as these are the best hot cross buns I have come across.  The bread is heavy and doughy and they are filled with five different types of dried fruits.  4.5/5 The croissants are very good but you need to get them when they are straight out of the oven as they turn a little wrinkly after some time.  They also could be a little more buttery, I felt. 4/5

Conclusion

This is a great place for freshly baked, artisanal breads!  And I am so proud of the fact that our local bakers are able to make breads that meet the standards of top chefs like Wolfgang Puck!

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Bakery Brera: The Evolution of HDB Bakeries

It is amazing how the HDB bakery has changed over the years!

I still remember the bad old days in the 70’s when there was only one type of bread.  Those were the days before Gardenia introduced sliced white bread which was “so good you can eat it on its own”.  In those days, when mum told me to go buy bread, it meant running down to the kek ai (grocery store) to pick up a loaf of traditional kaya toast bread which the lady would slice on the spot.  They always made sure that they never slice it all the way through, such that all the slices were still attached on one side.  I was told that it was because they didn’t want to severe the relationship with the customer!  Even as a kid, I suspected it was just an excuse to make it easier to pack the loaf into the plastic bag!

I still remember the day mum brought home some hot dog buns from a brand new bakery at Blk 233 Toa Payoh Lor 8.  It was quite a revelation and I fell in love with the soft, sweet, pillowy buns with that first bite.  Nowadays such buns are so common that our kids take them for granted.  But in those days, a pack of fresh buns and a can of Tulip hotdogs was enough to make me happy as a puppy!  (Actually they still make me happy, but the hot dogs have to be upgraded to the deli version)

My earliest memories of European breads was the introduction of baguette sandwiches by Delifrance in the 80’s.  Then in the nineties, bakeries like Cedele started to appear.  Over the last few years, European style breads has started to invade the heartlands with local bakers making the crusty loaves.

Most Singaporeans are familiar with the ubiquitous “French loaf” which is used to accompany curry chicken or fried with eggs to make Roti John.  These “French loaves” have been around for the longest time and was even used in the 50’s to for chilli crabs before they were replaced with the fried mantou.  However, these “French loaves” are probably as close to an authentic French baguette as fried “Singaporean noodles”.

Thankfully, home grown bakeries like Bakery Brera are now making artisanal loaves available in the HDB heartlands!  I’d bet that many people would have walked pass this unassuming little bakery at Empress Mall without even bothering to walk in. (I don’t know why its called a mall when it looks like just another row of HDB shophouses).

I would have done the same too except for the fact that someone had told me that this unassuming little bakery has recently beaten the big boys and got selected to supply the sourdough bread for Wolfgang Puck’s new restaurant at Changi Airport!  What is more surprising is that the baker is a local Malaysian boy who had taught himself how to bake his artisanal loaves from books!

The owners here have made it their mission to provide only all natural loaves made without the use of bread improvers and the breads here are made from French flour using all natural ingredients.  They are also using a locally harvested sourdough starter which was “hatched” right here in the bakery over a year ago!

I love the baguettes here.  When you crack it open, you are greeted with a lovely crumb structure and the aroma of toasted wheat!   I brought one home and had it with some French butter and  was reminded yet again of the adage that the simple things in life are often the best!  4.5/5

It’s already past Easter but they are still  baking their hot cross buns because their customers are still asking for them!  It’s no wonder as these are the best hot cross buns I have come across.  The bread is heavy and doughy and they are filled with five different types of dried fruits.  4.5/5 The croissants are very good but you need to get them when they are straight out of the oven as they turn a little wrinkly after some time.  They also could be a little more buttery, I felt. 4/5

Conclusion

This is a great place for freshly baked, artisanal breads!  And I am so proud of the fact that our local bakers are able to make breads that meet the standards of top chefs like Wolfgang Puck!

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