Because in Singapore there's no excuse for having a bad meal.

Not always pretty, but always interesting....

Ramen Santouka – These ain't your noodles from college!

Classic Shio Ramen with Tokusen Toroniku pork cheeks.

When I think of ramen noodles it evokes increasingly distant memories of my college days, when for twenty five cents I could buy a cellophane block of hard, dry noodles and a foil bullion pack which would sustain me through another night of, er, “studying.” Like so many of my neo-poverty colleagues, I practically lived on the stuff. It was cheap, salty and cooked up in about three minutes. It didn’t matter if the crusty noodles got smashed between the books and beer in my backpack because all I was looking for was a salt delivery system; just throw a little beef jerky in the pot and you had yourself a meal. That’s what I thought ramen was.

Years later a friend invited me to a lunch of real ramen – a food I had thought little of since those lean college days. I hesitated before accepting the dubious invitation; my disbelief suspended only because this guy is a well-established “foodie.” He spoke of things I had never associated with ramen: “globules of shiny fat,” alkaline noodles and umami. It didn’t sound like the ramen of my youth and I began to wonder if, perhaps, I had missed something along the way. Still, I approached the half-curtained entry to Ramen Santouka in the Central at Clarke Quay warily, preoccupied by visions of plastic bowls filled with grey, watery soup and flavorless stale noodles. I could not have been more mistaken.

What I did not know upon entering Ramen Santouka was that I was entering not just an unassuming Japanese restaurant chain from Hokkaido but also a world of food fanaticism and unrelenting, age-old culinary exactitude. Admiring the elegantly simple décor and sweeping view of the Singapore River, my dubious expectations dissipated when, throughout the room, I saw nothing but happy people slurping noodles out of large stoneware bowls from which floated gentle puffs of sumptuous steam. Before I knew it, similar dishes were placed before us, along with a plate of juicy Tokusen Toroniku pork cheeks, the warm aroma of which triggered an instant Pavlovian response. What is this mysterious concoction before me? I thought and, as if he could read my mind, my friend simply whispered: “Ahh, shio ramen.”

It is said that the majority of ramen diners burn the roof of their mouths ever so slightly on their first sip of every bowl of ramen, and my experience was no exception. The slight singe of my first taste was accompanied by a deep, earthy flavor that blossomed on my palate into a silky richness like I had never before tasted in soup. The shio broth in which my tender noodles rested was dense and milky white, evenly infused with the tiniest spheres of bubbly, liquid marrow. Despite its salt and pork origin, it was not excessively briny or oleaginous. Instead, its smoky sensation of savory pork stock, blended with the woodiness of shitake mushrooms, ginger, garlic and tickled with a herbaceous, salty hint, was a masterful lesson in depth, texture and balance. And that was when all preconceived notions from college vanished and I realized that ramen – perhaps the purest form of Japanese “comfort food” – is serious cuisine.

Just what is it that makes a simple bowl of boiled bone soup and noodles take on rock-star status in the world of great food? In Japan it’s more than a food or even cuisine, but indeed, a way of life. Santouka chef and supervisor Koji Kanoi explained that great ramen requires a commitment to precision, patience and a lot of practice. Which is why not just anyone can boil up a pot a ramen; not a decent one, anyway. 

The ramen closest to the Chinese culinary roots from which this distinctly Japanese food sprang over a hundred years ago is shôyu, a soy-based broth and the most common version found in such ramen-centric venues as Tokyo. But at Santouka they span the general categories of true ramen also serving shio (salt), tonkotsu (pork broth) and miso (fermented bean paste) varieties. Whatever the style (or tare) of ramen, they always start with the broth – the genesis of which is an enormous pot of water, dried fish and vegetables and exceptional pork bones. 

Producing the broth involves carefully roasting the bones before boiling them furiously for over five hours to extract all their flavor and marrow. Then commences a sixteen hour balancing act of adding to the liquid other ingredients, including chicken, herbs vegetables, konbu seaweed, dried bonito flakes and any number of secret ingredients. It simmers under precisely controlled temperatures in order to reach the perfect combination of intensity, flavor and viscosity. 

“But it’s really all in the bones.” Kanoi-san whispered as he raised the lid from a vat of roiling bones. And not just any old bones. After years of experimenting with many sources around the world, Santouka found the perfect pigs to precede its soup. “The marrow is the key and our carefully staggered cooking process gently coaxes it out and builds the broth,” he explained. But when I asked where those exquisite bones came from, Kanoi-san just sucked a little air through his teeth and smiled politely.
“There is no room for shortcuts if it is to meet our standards,” said the soft-spoken cook from Hokkaido. “So today’s soup was started yesterday and the soup cooking now will be ready tomorrow.” The finished broth – thickened naturally by the luscious marrow – is carefully maintained under meticulous temperature control until served. Mine – one shio and one shôyo (I had to try both!) – were ladled into bowls atop luscious homemade noodles – alkaline based to absorb just the right flavor while remaining slick and firm to the tooth. Floating on the surface was the classic accompaniment of scallions, nori, bamboo shoots and an umbioshi sour plum to compliment those amazing pork cheeks with a delicate brown outer ring, succulent pinkish center and an unparalleled butter-soft texture on the tongue.

At only 200 grams each, only sixty Tokusen Toroniku cheeks are prepared on a typical day. “We tried cheeks from different regions of the world, starting in Japan, but also in Australia, the United States and elsewhere before finding the very best. But that’s all I can say.” Kanoi-san said, reverently holding an intricately marbled slab of the wagyu-style meat. The pork is marinated in shôyu before the actual braising process begins, following which it undergoes a profound transformation so secret he only let me peek at the precious meat in a simmering, reddish fusion of braising stock, herbs and spices. I pressed him for the recipe, but he just sucked more air through his humble smile. 

Pork cheeks secretly braising.
I nodded, suddenly understanding that such trivial questions about recipes are not easily answered, because the ramen at Santouka is more than just a really good recipe. The brilliance that makes this soup so indelibly arresting is indefinable. Its unsurpassed richness is more than just the product of using the best ingredients and building into it a distinct-yet-indefinable source of umami. Its luscious texture is more than just the result of culinary expertise. Such depth and complexity of flavor can only be borne from a knowledgeable passion for perfection and a stubborn refusal to accept anything less. And it’s that sliver of culinary magic – a discipline which takes years to learn and a lifetime to perfect – that carves the unbridgeable chasm between the quick-fix instant ramen of my youth and Santouka’s gustatory masterpiece.

Ramen Santouka
6 Eu Tong Sen Street #02-76
The Central at Clarke Quay
+65 6224 0668

Foodwalk: Getting Lost in Singapore's Little India

Whether praying in temples, selling items on the street or hawking food in restaurants and markets, Singapore’s Little India is as real as India gets this side of the subcontinent. It's a great place for a foodwalk if, of course, you are feeling very hungry. 

Begin your 3-hour foodwalk at the Little India MRT and head into Tekka Market for roast duck from Heng Gi Goose & Duck (stall 01-335). They’ve been serving up Teochew braised waterfowl for nearly fifty years. Combined with their fois-gras, homemade tofu and a crunchy duck foot it’s a full flavor study in control and balance. But it's a big plate, so share it with a friend or two because there is some good food in your foodwalking future.

Walk up Buffalo Road past fruit and vegetables bulging from storefronts onto the sidewalks until you reach Serangoon Rd. Cross the road, turn left and head North to the corner of Norris Road for Azmi Restaurant (also known as Norris Road Chapati) (168 Serangoon Road) whose slogan: “Secret of good mood; Taste of Azim’s food” is hard to argue with. The menu here is old-school, with everything cooked from scratch since 1944 in the tiny kitchen out back. Their specialties – simple whole-wheat chapatis – are cooked on a round iron griddle by a guy in an izaar wrap standing barefoot on a sheet of cardboard. He’s been making chapatis there since 1956 when the British still controlled Singapore. 

To understand just how good Azmi is, order two chapattis and the mutton keema – granules of savory minced meat, peas, potatoes and spices slow-cooked into a mélange of magnificence. Brighten the deep, earthy flavors with a side of shaved onions, crisp cucumber and a squirt of calamansi.  The chapatis are soft and warm; thin disks of pure wheat and water, flaking apart like dense tissue paper. Tear it into ribbons and scoop up gobbets of the keema. Then fight to restrain your whimpers of jubilation. 

Just a few doors down Serangoon is Valli Flower Mill (174 Serangoon Road), one of the few remaining hand spice grinding and roasting operations in Singapore. Between running spice rakes though the raw umber powder, barefooted men still grind spices in the hundred-year-old mills. The air wafts a smoky perfume of cumin, chili, garlic, cinnamon, turmeric and other blended spices toasting gently in a large dry roasting trough. 
Continue along Serangoon, ducking under low-hanging awnings and crowded stores selling clothes, jewelry and food. Turn right at Desker Road and walk to Lembu Road to find the unassuming Bangla Square, also known as Lembu Road Open Space. Tall trees shade this bricked plaza, whose perimeter is lined with local shops selling Bangladeshi snacks, folded betel nut leaf and delicious sweets. Cool off with a refreshment at one of the tables while watching young men playing Carom, a sort of tale-top snooker with discs that slide on the powdered surface and knock the opponent’s discs away.

From Bangla Square, stroll past the many brightly colored shophouses along Desker and then right, along Kampong Kapor Road. When you reach Upper Weld Road hang a right and head to Tim Sim Coffee Shop (40 Clive Street) on a triangular intersection of Upper Weld, Dickson and Clive Streets. You may not recognize this wallless, tin-roofed corner of the street as a coffee shop at all. But it’s been there for nearly 100 years, according to the brewer who, by the looks of him, may very well have celebrated its grand opening. He'll make your kopi slowly, shuffle to your plastic table and bark “You try.” The coffee is old-school in the strictest sense: butter-roasted, dark and robust, and very, very strong.

From Upper Weld Road continue down Upper Dickson toward Serangoon, cross it and stroll down Kerbau Street, following it to the right where it becomes Belilios Lane. At the end of the lane you reach the side of the remarkably ornate Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple (141 Serangoon Road). If it’s open you should go in and have a look at the silver prayer bell, intricate religious art and enclosed courtyard with shrines dedicated to Hindu deities. Then retrace your path down Belilios Road and follow it the short block to Chander Road.

Directly across from you sits the tiny Cettinadu New Restaurant (41 Chander Road). A waiter will ladle from steel pots raita, stewed greens, spiced potato and a dollop of chutney “pickle” onto your fresh banana leaf “plate.” Order the classic Chettinad chicken curry or mutton masala and dive in -- but only with your bare, right hand. The waiter will keep refilling your sides until you beg him to stop. When you’re done, simply fold your leaf in half and wait for the (very small) bill.

Turn right upon exiting the restaurant and head down Chander Road to where it bends right into Kerbau Road. On the corner is North Indian Sri Lakshminarayan Temple (5 Chander Road), with its red beehive shaped Amalaka domes. Across the street, set back from the corner is a courtyard lined with small Indian snack joints offering tasty curry puffs, sweets, teh tarek and fresh-made pani puri. 

Across the courtyard is the ornately painted Tan Tang Niah shophouse (37 Kerbau Road), built in 1900 and passed through a colorful history until being designated a preservation building in 1990. From here you can pass through narrow, shaded vegetable stalls between the buildings leading to Buffalo Road and the end of your foodwalk.  Turn right a few meters to Race Course Road and the MRT station.

If you reflect over what you’ve just seen and tasted you’ll realize that old-school Singapore is still alive in Little India and it’s utterly approachable and delicious. If you enjoy Indian colors, culture and cuisine, you’ll fall in love with this neighborhood. And if you’re timid to Indian food here’s the good news: there’s no better or more hygienic place on the planet to discover the real thing than right here.

G7 Sin Ma Live Seafood - It's not just about the frogs

Frog is a popular meat in Singapore and, like the saying goes, you have to kiss a lot of them to find a prince. G7 Sin Ma Live Seafood in Geylang is one of those princes. Famous for their frog porridge and other frog-realted dishes, it's a typical eating house that has outgrown the usual open corner, plastic table character and has bulged into the storefront across the street and even to the second level. There the dining room is slightly fancier in decor and suitable for a large group such as, in our recent case, a gathering of hungry Makansutra "makankakis." But despite this restaurant's anuran popularity you don't have to kiss a lot of frogs to get royal food here, as evidenced by the exceptional meal that the chef served up.

It started with Scallop & Mango Roll and Dragon Beard Prawns, set on a platter with diced fruit gently tossed in a creamy mayo-based dressing. The hand-spun "beards" encircling the prawns were light and crispy, sweetened by the plump meat of the shellfish within.

Next came Braised Dried & Fresh Fish Maw in a casserole. The contrasting textures of the ingredients, combined with the gentle flavor of the sauce made from the fish's own juices, was savory and delicious and announced to all that this eating house is not just about frog porridge.

Just as we were craving more our waitress whisked in with a plate of Cantonese Roast Duck and Sio Bak pork. The duck was cooked to perfection, not at all dry despite the remarkable caramelization of the skin to a deep, earthen color and a sheen that made our mouths water before we even tasted it. The pork was cut old-school style; chunkier for a full-on meaty experience. The crackling skin was thick and firm, never softening under the air and equally uniform in texture. It delivered a very satisfying, not-too-salty taste. In a sea of roasted meats across Singapore, this ranked near the top.

The food kept coming, and with every dish it got better and better. Like the crisp Aubergine With Chinese Green Beans, jumped up with the complex taste of ikan bilis to give it a curious hint of fish without detracting from the freshness of the veg. The aubergines were like french fries with a bad-ass attitude; a thin crunch on the outside leading to warm creamy flesh in the center and the perfect balance of salt. I never need potato fries again if I

can have these instead. The beans, crisp yet tender were tossed with the perfect balance of garlic and strings of the tiny dried anchovies which added a wondrous mouth feel. It was one of those unexpected dishes that haunts you with its flavor.

The gustatory onslaught continued; slabs of thick, tender Chinese Beef Steak in a thick, robust sauce that clung to the perfectly medium rare meat, so juicy and moist.

Then came what to many was a new experience: Steamed Shark Head. Now before the anti-shark fin establishment clicks away in repugnance it should be stated that this is not actually shark, but rather shovel nose ray - a plentiful creature of the sea. The cartilage, lined with the opaque, gelatinous

flesh which quivered between our chopsticks, gleamed within the pool of soy-based sauce infused with spices, garlic, scallions, fiery chili and -- if detection serves -- a hint of Sichuan peppercorn. While the powerful sauce was on the heavy side for the delicate "meat," obscuring its true, melt-in-your-mouth flavor and texture, it was nevertheless so good that, when the flesh was quickly gone we scooped spoonsful of the sauce onto rice and consumed it all, bringing the meal to a savory crescendo.

To gradually bring us down from our gustatory high the chef served Tai-O Bee Hoon noodles wrapped in Opeh leaf. At first glance its appearance was uninspiring; a bland, bleached pile of noodles with chunks of white meat -- dare I say frog -- and just a suspicion of green pepper and chili. Noodles are often the litmus test that separates a pretty good cook from a great one; that endless challenge to get just the right firmness to the noodle, infusing the flavor of the other ingredients and establishing a moist, almost creamy texture and a hint of wok hei. It's not easy and most never quite achieve it. But contrary to its insipid facade this dish exploded with flavor, delivering a creamy texture to the perfectly soft vermicelli; almost like a great char kway teow, but without the seafood addition. The small chunks of meat were soft and added even more bursts of juicy savoriness to the noodles, set off by the specks of red chili. It was as good a balance of salt, spice, bee hoon taste and meat as one could expect, and made us all agree breathlessly that, "Jeez, can this guy cook!"

But he wasn't finished with us just yet. Following on the heels of the bee hoon was another noodle delight -- Seafood Hor Fun on Opeh Leaf. Completely different from bee hoon, the hor fun noodles were wide and silky, slipping around in the beige sauce swimming with prawns, sliced fish, mushrooms and perfectly cooked fingers of squid. The sauce was slightly viscous and smooth, laden with specks of egg and baby kai lan greens along with a gentle yet pronounced smokiness thanks to the chef's mastery of the art of wok hei. Its comforting warmth and richness transported us closer to the safe and happy kitchen of our childhoods with every bite,

And to seal our palates with a gentle sweetness, a circle of Yam Paste was presented, divided into small bowls. The thick paste delivered a mild sweetness, thinned by the creamy pool in which it sat and setting our taste buds gently down to earth to mark the end of an exceptional meal.

G7 Sin Ma Live Seafood
161 Geylang Road (corner of Lorong 3)
Singapore 389239

To he who made food exploration easier and cooler -- a Tribute to Steve Jobs.

Today I type this with gentle, quiet fingers, instead of with my usual fury of flying phalanges.

There are few people in this day and age whom I can say were so influential, visionary and simply brilliant that, not only did they positively change the world as we know it, but also changed my own daily life for the better. Steve Jobs was one such person. When I think about his contributions to modern aspects of communication and computing -- making difficult technology easy, even fun, to use -- I am astonished. In history we've all learned about many such people -- inventors and technology innovators like DaVinci, Edison, Franklin, Einstein and so many others -- whose work utterly changed the world. And we tend to think that all the really great inventions have already been made, because we can't imagine more. 

Well, Steve Jobs did imagine more. And he brought those crazy, impossible ideas to reality. He manipulated a machine that was so indescribably complicated and difficult to use into something that is simple for nearly anyone -- wysiwyg on a computer, drag and drop, a mouse?? Welcome the Lisa and Macintosh. He created the ability to easily carry all your music in your pocket and listen to it wherever you are, whenever you want -- iPod. He enabled us to carry a telephone that does almost all of the things which that Macintosh and that ipod, and email and camera and movies and writing and access to any information anywhere in the world at any time and so much more, in one cool, sleek little Hershey's chocolate bar-sized package -- iPhone. He took a super-charged, easy to use Apple computer and squeezed it down into a thin, small, light and very sexy device that you can take anywhere as if you had your entire office in a slim envelope -- iPad. He even made it appropriate to spell proper nouns with a lower case "i" instead of a capital letter, thereby instantly identifying it to everyone as something technologically advanced merely by virtue of that little lower case letter. I could go on and on... but it's easier to say simply that Steve Jobs didn't just change the way we work, play, communicate and even speak; Steve Jobs changed our culture and directed our future.

As a Foodwalker, I use Steve Jobs' brilliant ideas constantly. Whether identifying where to go and eat, to finding it's gps location as I wander lost around unknown neighborhoods, or calling people to come join me because the food is so good, or taking impromptu pics of the food or stalls, or even sitting here now and writing this -- it's all made easier because of Steve Jobs and the global, user-freindly technology industry that he was so critically involved in shaping. Without his imagination, innovation, persistence and unyielding demand for excellence combined with aesthetics -- even to the point of trashing his own creations and starting over again -- many of us foodies would be working a lot harder today for no additional gain. And we wouldn't look nearly as cool, either....

So I take this sad moment of Steve Job's passing to set down the chopsticks, push away the noodles and marvel at the incredible man that was Steve Jobs. Apple will continue -- Steve himself even said that he believed its best days were still ahead of it -- and I have no reason to not believe him. I just can't imagine it, that's all. But imagination and bringing crazy ideas to reality was his forte, not mine, so he must have known what he was talking about when he said it. And that's good enough for me. 

So rest in peace Mr. Jobs, and thanks for making all of our lives better, easier and a whole lot cooler. Our children's children's children will one day study you in school and think to themselves that all the great inventions have already been made....