Xiao Ye: A Hainanese Chicken Rice Discovery




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There has been a flurry of buzz recently about Xiao Ye, a sliver of a place in Manhattan’s Lower East Side that would be easy to miss — except that you could just look for the gaggle of twenty-something Asians clogging up the narrow sidewalk, waiting for tables.

The prognosis of this Too-Cool-For-You Taiwanese comfort food restaurant that plasters the word “Dericious” above its kitchen and has christened its dishes with cutesy names that are also light jabs at Asians hasn’t always been good. Although chef Eddie Huang’s “Trade My Daughter for Fried Chicken” has gotten some raves in online reviews, the insatiable Gael Greene pronounced it too dry, “like wood shavings on chunks of white meat.” Last week, there was a final straw — Eddie (first known for Baohaus, the popular Taiwanese sandwich shop) announced on his blog, Fresh Off The Boat, that he was overhauling his menu after reading a lukewarm review on a New York food blog that expressed disappointment in Xiao Ye’s “normal” and generically flavored food.” As an experiment, Eddie, who calls his dishes “bootie call food” designed for late-night eating, has added items like Cheeto fried chicken and gochujang grilled cheese to the menu.

I don’t disagree with the criticism — when Gael and I hiked over to the LES for a catchup dinner a few weeks ago, the place had both misses and hits. Midway through dinner, we even decided to order a few more dishes after wondering if perhaps we had just made some wrong choices. 

I will say this, though — the restaurant has one shining spot that made this Singaporean transplant very happy: its Hainanese chicken rice (listed on the menu as “Big Trouble in Hainan Chicken” for $15) is a delight.

In the 16 years that I’ve lived in the United States, I’ve searched eateries all over for acceptable versions of the incredible dishes of my home country. I’ve managed to find decent versions of chicken curry, satay, tauhu goreng (deep-fried tofu that’s filled with julienned vegetables and drowned in spicy peanut sauce) and even oyster omelette, Teochew style. 

Good Hainanese chicken rice, however, was more elusive. This dish basically consists of chicken (steamed, boiled or roasted) and paired with a fragrant oily rice that’s been steeped in a broth with chicken fat and vanilla-like pandan leaves and a phalanx of condiments — minced ginger, garlicky chili sauce and “dark sauce,” a Southeast Asian soy sauce that’s sweet and as thick as molasses. It may sound easy, but the combination is harder to pull off than you’d think.

In the years that I’ve eaten my way through America, I had never sampled a passable version of chicken rice. Xiao Ye’s isn’t a dead ringer for the versions you’ll find in Singaporean hawker centers, of course.

But it’s not bad. And trust me, that’s high praise from this finicky Singaporean.

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Purple Yam: Filipino, Just Like Mom’s


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It’s hard not to be leery of restaurants that try to please too many palates.

When dishes as disparate as bibimbap, goat curry and wild boar pizza pop up on a menu that’s supposed to have a distinct Filipino bent, you get the distinct feeling that something’s got to give. Korean and Filipino dishes, after all, can be complex undertakings.

At Purple Yam, the new Filipino/pan-Asian restaurant in Ditmas Park by Chef Romy Dorotan (who shuttered his well-regarded Cendrillon in Manhattan earlier this year), the menu is that varied. But there’s a lot to like about Dorotan’s food so far.

Well, as long as you stick to the Filipino dishes.

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Chilled Soup: Those Healing Green Beans


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The Chinese in Singapore are big believers in the healing properties of soups — specifically, “heaty” and “cooling” soups, which either add fire to your body or cool it down, getting just the right balance of Yin and Yang. 

I know it’s sacrilege to say this — and I can already hear the clucking of my Mum and aunts who might actually read this — but I don’t give two hoots about heaty or cooling.

The most important question for me always is, “Does it taste good?”

And with green bean soup, the answer is: Yes, oh yes.

Despite my love for this sweet soup, I’ve never known how to make it. So, when my Let’s Lunch friends, a group of intrepid cooks spread across two continents who’ve been staging virtual lunchdates, suggested that we make a chilled soup for our next meal, I jumped at the excuse to learn my mother’s recipe.

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Singapore: Grilling The Satay Man


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I’ve been on a hunt.

The object of my obsession has been a man who is one of the last of his kind in Singapore – the traveling Satay Man, a person of a breed so rare that, sadly, he’s not likely to be replaced when he finally he hangs up his tongs.

For the last 32 years, this particular satay man has plied his trade almost every day in the Tiong Bahru neighborhood in central Singapore. He spends hours pushing his little wooden cart along the narrow sidewalks near Tiong Bahru market, pausing occasionally to bellow, “Sa-TAAYYYYYY! Sa-TAAYYYYYY!”

Those who live there know to run down quickly when they hear him — you never know how long he’ll stop for. And, at 40 cents (about 28 U.S. cents) for a stick of satay, he often sells out pretty quickly.

I’m happy to report that I finally did catch him. And the news, I fear, is not good.

At 43 years old, he’s looking to quit. There’s a home in China he’s dreaming of retiring to, you see. As soon as he can comfortably close shop for good, he’s gone.

For now, however, he’s got a job to do. And what a job it is — after having tasted his satay, I rank this guy up there with Santa Claus in the “bringing joy (and calories) to folks” category.

Seriously, people, we’ve got to find a way to clone him.

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Kueh Tutu: A Sweet Bit Of Heritage


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Among the many foods I obsessed over while growing up in Singapore, kueh tutu ranked high on the list.

This two-bite-sized spongy pastry featuring a steamed rice-flour shell filled with either sweet, shredded coconut or minced peanuts was already rapidly disappearing from the hawker scene when I was a child. (“Kueh” means cake or cookie in Malay; “tutu” is derived from the sound of the steamers that hawkers used decades ago to make them.)

Because kueh tutu is best eaten warm and freshly made (they tend to become hard and gummy if made even 20 minutes in advance), hawkers have to create them in small batches on demand. This makes them a rather expensive dessert to sell, given Singaporeans aren’t generally willing to pay more than 30 to 50 cents for one. (That would be about 20 to 35 U.S. cents.)

Even though some kueh tutu stalls have popped up in foodcourts recently, the pastry is still not exactly sold on every street corner these days. So whenever I spot a cart selling them, I drop everything I’m doing to get in line and buy some.

I can easily eat five or 10 of the sweet nubbins at a sitting — I wish I were joking.

On Day One of my current trip to Singapore for book research, while hunting down some roast duck for my grandmother’s dinner in the Ghim Moh neighborhood, the kueh tutu gods were clearly on my side.

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