I had this whole long article for my introduction…
About how the littlest of things one does in those lesser moments can last a friendship for an entire lifetime. Alas, it’d never see the light of day as my computer unexpectedly shut down on low power warnings. I suppose it’s for the best: it was too personal and ultimately, wasn’t relevant to this evening’s dinner at Swee Choon.
Located by the wayside of the cultural South Asian quarter of the aptly named Little India is Swee Choon. Here, you won’t find false facades of theatrics, charades and make-believe. Inside, the brightly-lit, crammed and convivial dining spaces spillover into the kitchen and outside into the back alleys. The setting is liberal and unceremonious, but behind the scenes, there’s a strict decorum that keeps the machine running all night into the wee hours of dawn. This Chinese restaurant, a well-known supper salon just on the outskirts of the city, welcomes patrons by constantly honing its techniques, refining its methods and adapting to new taste and preferences in Chinese dim sum.
With the rise of China, the spotlight on its biggest and most cosmopolitan metropolis, along with the flavor accessibility of its fare, it’s no wonder Shanghainese cuisine has been embraced by so many and so easily, and Swee Choon’s no exception. While other eateries in the same “class” often take liberties with recipes and flavors, Swee Choon’s steadfast devotion to authenticity is odd, and almost regal in fact. To accommodate this new trend, Swee Choon has gone above and beyond by inviting experienced la mian and dim sum chefs from the mainland…all for no more than a quarter of its menu. All this extra effort seems to have paid off: it keeps the customers coming, and they’ve returned for 40 years!
With the weather nice and chilly, we opted for the lovely al fresco dining and promptly ticking up our orders. Our dinner began with the banana and prawn fritters, a lightly crisp exterior encasing the piping hot balance of the sweet with the savory. The natural sweetness of the shrimps complemented the bananas while its seafood salinity prepped the taste-buds for the savory. Although I dislike sweet-savory mixes, this was all in all, a good starter.
If you, like me, has ever had the opportunity of visiting the dynamic city of Shanghai, then you will appreciate the flavors of the Shanghai style minced pork dumplings here. The xiao long bao is certainly one of the more complex to prepare. The portion of minced meat, gelatin (when steamed, it liquefies and creates the iconic broth inside the dumpling)…it’s more mathematical than aesthetics really. Get either wrong, and the dumpling doesn’t hold. Sure, Swee Choon’s xiao long baos aren’t as perfectly cloned as some of the more famous names like Din Tai Fung, nor is it the best in terms of balance and textures, but there’s an undeniable sense of vigour in it that just recalls the street side dumplings that I had in Shanghai. And that makes it just as good, or perhaps better.
For my carbo intake, I ordered the Shanghai plain noodles in onion and oil. I discovered the magic of these “plain noodles” at media tasting events – simple but absolutely heavenly. Their good-sized portions combined with their wallet friendly pricing (this one here at SGD 3.50) means I save, allowing me to indulge on an extra dish. Unlike pasta or Japanese ramen, Chinese pulled noodles or la mian, should hardly be al dente. Instead, the noodles should be smooth and silky but never ever mushy and soggy. The uncomplicated mix of sesame oil, fried shallots and a touch of chili for that touch of heat was rustic, nourishing and invigorating.
Another Shanghai dim sum classic is the Sichuan chili oil dumpling. A good wonton is one whose skin absorbs the mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorn-infused oil that the dumpling is served in, and when eaten, creates that recognizable numbingly spicy tingle in the mouth. This one at Swee Choon, was unfortunately not as numbing as I expected it to be, thus breaking Swee Choon’s winning streak so far.
Just when I thought I knew everything there was to Shanghai dim sum, with xiao long bao, Beijing dumplings, chive pork dumplings, pan fried pastries and shaoxing wine-infused steamed chicken…comes something totally new. I never came across this when I was in Shanghai, but here it is, categorized under the “Shanghai dim sum” category at Swee Choon: layer pancake with egg and meat floss. The construct is almost Japanese, with pancakes (north of the Yangtze, we start seeing a lot of flour and wheat products in Mainland Chinese cuisine, i.e. buns, breads, crepes, pastys, pancakes) taking the place of seaweed and sushi rice, and a paper-thin omelete and meat floss sandwiched between the sideways-looking mini swiss roll. You can probably guess: this is a sweet-savory treat.
We now leave the confines of Northern and Eastern Chinese cuisine, and into more familiar territory: Hong Kong dim sum. Hong Kong dim sum has had its ups and downs. At the turn of the century, fear of all-encompassing communist control sparked an exodus of talent, sending the city-state limping under Chinese rule. But in a tough city like Hong Kong, you can’t just survive: you’ve gotta succeed or die trying. And by the late 2000s, I saw the spark…they began evolving, innovating and creating. While there were brief successes within the territory, most of them failed except one. On paper, it shouldn’t work, considering the complexity of preparation and making but alas, it began popping up in restaurant. Now, a decade later, it’s fast gaining popularity as the new face and new classic of Hong Kong dim sum. The golden lava bun or liu sha bao, is a bun that’s characterized by the creamy and runny custard filling made from milk and sweetened egg yolks, and the variant I had at Swee Choon is certainly the best I’ve had so far. With the composition as complex as this, it’s definitely something you wanna go for the moment it’s served.
Darren as usual, wanted to make sure he ticked all the restaurant’s signatures, which is why he ordered the Swee Choon mee-suah kueh or vemicelli cake. It’s certainly an interesting concept even if it doesn’t look like much. However, don’t fear this seeming unknown for the flavor is in fact, quite familiar. It tastes as if some genius managed to capture all the character of a typical Southeast Asian vermicelli soup, and condensed it into a block. The brilliant fry technique of the vermicelli cake manages to gently char and crisp the exterior while keeping the inside almost pristine, keeping the noodle strands individual and visible. It’s a little weird and I didn’t have much of it, not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because I had my la mian.
The other Hong Kong dim sum classics like the barbecued pork bun and the shrimp dumpling were alright, perhaps overshadowed by the star attractions earlier. For what it’s worth, I thought the har kau was a little over the top, in the sense that I felt like they were trying to stuff as many shrimps as possible into the dumpling. Normally, I might appreciate and enjoy such a manner, but the dumpling skin was certainly on the “almost” mushy side.
Red bean paste pancakes