Turmeric-Sambal Chicken: A Singapore-New York Stir-Fry

Anyone who’s attended an A Tiger in the Kitchen event or reading in the last year knows: The big thing I learned from cooking with my aunties in their Singapore kitchens was the importance of “Agak-Agak.”

The Malay phrase, which means “Guess-Guess,” encapsulates their method of cooking. They don’t rely on recipes or cookbooks — ingredients are tossed into a wok by sheer estimation, one that’s based on powerful instinct honed from years of very good cookery.

Since my year of cooking with them, I’ve found myself inspired to do the agak-agak thing more in my kitchen. Where I once was terrified of simply peeking in the fridge and throwing dinner together, with my busy book travels recently, that’s become rather the norm. Out of this new practice, however, has emerged interesting stir-fries, stews and more.

Just this week, as I was trying to recall how I’d made a dish I liked a few months back, I realized with great chagrin that like my aunties, I’ve not written any of these inventions down.

Well, that’s going to be fixed.

Starting with this stir-fry, we’re going to start recording it all. If you love turmeric and sambal, then definitely read on …

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786 Yassin Restaurant: “Drunk Food” To Remember


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The moment I heard about 786 Yassin Restaurant, a place in Singapore that reputedly serves outstanding Indian mutton soup, I instantly begged to be taken.

When done well, soup kambing, as it’s called, is a hefty flavor bomb that’s hard to forget. It comes infused with coriander, cumin, cardamom, turmeric, nutmeg and star anise (among other spices) and dotted with crispy fried shallots and soft onion chunks.

This, no doubt, is the Chanel of soups.

When to have it, however, turned out to be something to consider.

“You can’t have soup kambing now lah,” said my friend Basil, who had told me about Yassin, prompting me to immediately suggest heading there for dinner. ”It’s mabuk food.”

Ahh, drunk food — the dishes that are the perfect panacea when you’re leaving a bar at 2 a.m. and looking for something to quell your hunger and sober you up. In the case of soup kambing, this heady concoction of spices does an especially efficient job of clearing your head and helping you wade out of your Chivas fog.

I didn’t want to have to get drunk in order to try Yassin’s though. So after some persuading, we were on our way.  

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International Food Stall: A Nasi Lemak Breakfast


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It was at Nyonya, a Malaysian restaurant in New York City, that I recently found myself with the legendary and insatiable Gael Greene, trying to explain the wonder that is nasi lemak, a Malay dish of coconut rice topped with a fried egg, fried chicken, crispy anchovies, cucumber slices and fiery sambal chili sauce.

“We eat it for breakfast — or lunch,” I said, explaining that some Singapore hawkers will have packets of the rice tightly wrapped up in banana leaves set out in the morning, ready for the harried to buy and eat on the run.

“Breakfast?” she said, looking intrigued.

Granted, it’s hard to appreciate nasi lemak as one of the best ways to start the day when the New York version set before you is a mound of flavorless rice paired with a mushy mess of sodden chicken and anchovies that are limp and cold instead of crunchy and tongue-searingly hot.

But if you’ve had the real thing for breakfast while sitting in a humid hawker center in sweltering tropical heat, trust me, you’ll be a convert. Oatmeal and French Toast will be all but a distant, lesser memory.

In Singapore, one of my favorite places for the stuff is a little stall in Changi Village, a somewhat sleepy nook by the sea. It’d been many years since I’d been there — but I’d heard its lines remained as impossibly long. (Always a good sign.)

Clearly, it was time for a revisit …

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Indian Chicken Curry: A Grandmother’s Recipe


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A few weeks ago, I found myself on the phone, frantically shuttling between calls to my aunt and my grandmother, trying to jolt their memories and nail down the ingredients we needed for my Singapore family’s take on chicken curry.

As the calls got more confusing and the ingredient list grew more nebulous, my friend Basil, a Singaporean of Indian ethnicity, sat nearby, listening in with an increasingly incredulous look.

“You’re sitting next to an Indian,” he finally said, “and you’re not asking him how he makes his curry?”

A very good point.

It turns out Basil, better known to his friends as the hard-to-miss, gregarious guy at any bar that he frequents, also knows how to cook. He learned 20 years ago in his grandmother’s kitchen, when he was drafted as a teenager to help her after she’d lost a leg to diabetes. “She would park her wheelchair at the entrance to the kitchen and bark out instructions to me,” he said.

Well, her lessons must have stuck because Basil then proved that he could rattle off her curry instructions as quickly and surely as he can list the latest Manchester United stats.

The moment I got back to my Brooklyn kitchen, I knew I had to try it.

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Gayatri Restaurant: One For The Road


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Your last meal in any city is no small matter, I’ve always believed.

It’s the meal you might still be able to taste as you look out at the diminishing skyline from the plane; the one that you’ll be thinking of to tide you over until you return again.

During my most recent trip to Singapore for book research, where to have my last supper was a particularly hard decision.

I’d eaten well. In just a few weeks, I’d clocked not one but two visits to Hock Lam for the umami bomb that is its gooey beef ball noodles. I’d trekked to the seafront Changi Village to sample the nasi lemak, a Malay dish of coconut rice with a fried chicken wing, sambal chili, fried egg and crunchy anchovies, from a hawker stall I loved but hadn’t visited in over 10 years. And I’d had a lovely lunch at Iggy’s, a high-end restaurant that served up a custard-like French toast dessert topped with thick flecks of truffles that was truly unforgettable.

When plotting the appropriate finale, one thing instantly came to mind.

My friend Basil had told me a few weeks back about taking some people to his favorite restaurant in Little India to eat spicy mutton, drink beer and watch the world go by. 

The choice was obvious.

Come, I said, let’s go.

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Obao: Panned Asian


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New York is filled with so many “pan-Asian” restaurants that it can be difficult to get excited about yet another one setting up shop.

Vietnamese pork chops? Been there. Summer rolls? So, so done that.

And Obao, Michael Huynh’s newest addition to his rapidly expanding string of Manhattan restaurants, hits these and all the other usual notes that you’ll find at many other similarly billed places in the city.

What’s different? Not much, compared with your run-of-the-mill multi-ethnic Asian restaurant.

There are some hits — anything meaty and/or grilled. And, of course, some misses, namely a “spicy” Singapore laksa (pictured above) that’s so watered down that its broth tastes like hot water with some curry powder tossed in toward the end.

But here’s the thing: Even at Obao’s recession-friendly prices (which put entrees between $9 and $18), for those who enjoy a hearty bowl of noodle soup or a crisp papaya salad now and then, there are just so many other places in the city to go for better versions.

So, why eat here?

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Xie Xie: A Little Lost In Translation


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Working my way through the Vietnamese fish sandwich at Xie Xie, the newest addition to the New York Asian sandwich scene, a phrase kept ringing through my head: “I’m not seeing the forest for the trees.”

In this case, it was the fact that two thick layers of dill, paired with a slender portion of turmeric-seasoned fish, ended up being so overwhelming that it was hard to get a sense of the sandwich as a whole.

All you truly noticed was that you had a mouth full of dill. (And a lot of bread.)

As for the fish — which is the star of chaca la vong, the heady dill- and turmeric-scented Hanoi dish that this $8.75 sandwich was modeled and named after — that can be a little hard to detect after wading through all that dill and starch.

Which is not to say that Xie Xie isn’t worth checking out. 

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Big D’s Grill: Democratizing Food, One Wagyu Steak At A Time


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It’s peak dinnertime on a weeknight in Singapore and I’m perched on a rickety plastic stool at Big D’s Grill in Holland Village.

The tables are only somewhat clean. It’s so unbearably hot and humid in the food court-style coffee shop that an almost endless trickle of sweat is rolling down my face. And the rumbling din all around only crescendos as the tank-top and shorts-wearing crowd grows and flip-flopped hawkers race from table to table, barking out greetings and taking orders.

It’s hardly the setting where you’d expect to find some of the most satisfying (and, in some instances, inventive) Western dishes currently being served in Singapore. And yet, that’s exactly what you’ll get at Big D’s, a place that serves USD $33 wagyu rib-eye steaks and USD $8.20 snapper livornese from a tiny kitchen wedged between hawker stands that sell noodle dishes and fish soups for around USD $1.

Damian D’Silva, the owner/chef of Big D’s, is something of a man on a mission — and his quest is to bring high-end fare to
a swath of people who love good food but might be intimidated
by or don’t want to be bothered with going to a fancy French or Italian
restaurant. His hole-in-the-wall stall has been part of a growing number of places in hawker centers and other outdoor foodcourts that have been gradually democratizing the eating culture in Singapore simply by selling French, German or Eurasian dishes that one would typically find at higher prices in high-end restaurants in low-key, neighborhood settings.

Big D’s in particular, has been attracting big crowds and attention on the shoulders of Damian’s dishes — the New York Times, apparently, is about to run a feature on the place. (The restaurant’s Facebook page, Fans of Big D’s Grill, sent out an email blast last week urging customers to swing by and pad up the crowds last Friday for a planned photo shoot with a Times photographer.)

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