I like the story of Hansang.
A wife of a Korean expatriate in Singapore, whose culinary skills was so loved and missed by fellow expatriates who were frustrated by the lack of proper Korean homecooked food that it inspired her to start a business. She opened her first store in a mall plagued by a lack of visitorship, and slowly but surely, her restaurant took off, winning the hearts of Singaporeans and more importantly for her, Korean expatriates and the Korean companies based here. Encouraged by her then unofficial catering business, she scoured the island for a site where she could site her central kitchen, and found it at The Grandstand where her third restaurant is located. Her approach to food is one filled with passion, but she soon found out that the business of F&B was a whole new animal. Because of the limited Korean expatriate population and labor crunch in Singapore, the battle for consistency became her biggest challenge. And although she’s well aware for the need for occasional menu changes to keep the concept fresh, she found that her Korean customers were less than receptive to change while her Singaporean customers displayed little awareness about Korean cuisine beyond the stereotypical barbecues, stews and bulgogi.
Now, having studied fashion design, merchandising and marketing, and learning about the true reasons why few local designers ever make it, her story is more relevant to me than it ever was before. Yes, your brand identity and product is unique to you, and no one can ever change that, but at the end of the day, your creativity can only go so far. The biggest challenge perhaps for anyone going into business is to accept criticism, and giving the people what they want while balancing your own input.
Every so often when I turn on the television, I’d find myself stuck on Hero, a 2007 film starring Takuya Kimura as an unconventional prosecutor which I remember watching with Terrance back in the day. The film, like many Japanese films in the same genre, piles on seemingly random and incredible coincidences with seemingly random clues for the audience as they follow the protagonist on his seemingly aimless investigation. Typically, the audience takes on the role of the generally clueless supporting cast until the big revelation at the end where the random scenes are pieced together to form a coherent picture. The film is barely noteworthy nor does it stretch any boundaries to deserve any critical acclaim, but I always get stuck the moment it’s on.
Perhaps the most memorable scene of the film for me is when Takuya and his legal aide played by Takako Matsu find themselves in Busan where the protagonist frequently finds himself sidetracked by his innocent obsession with searching for “chung guk jang”, which I just realized is fermented bean (natto) stew and not kimchi tofu soup as I previously assumed. This stew is known in both Japan and Korea for its medicinal healing strength and prevention of stomach cancer. However, just like the Southeast Asian durian, the stew is controversial: its unique and instantly recognizable pungent cheese-like aroma is repulsive to some and appetizing to others.
So, every time I chance about this scene, especially when Takuya Kimura’s signature childlike excitement and euphoria kicks in, I crave for this mythical dish till no end. Nevertheless, I’ve never been able to satisfy this craving in part because I previously mistook the stew to be something else instead. Even so, a quick search on the web reveals that the Korean establishments I’ve visited don’t sell fermented bean stew.
Well, if any Korean restaurant in Singapore has it, it has gotta be Hansang, right? They don’t have a website, so I don’t know.
After an afternoon round of Chinese New Year visits (I’m Chinese by the way, even though I look super tanned…some might even say I look Malay but I hate that comparison by the way. If you have to, compare me to a Thai or Indonesian. I somehow feel less offended by those ethnicities), it was time for dinner with Darren. We arranged to meet at Holland Village to dine at the restaurant there, because The Grandstand is just to isolated and Novena just seems to lack the “hip” factor, you know? Even though it’s a Saturday, and even though I know I’m still in Singapore, there’s an otherworldly atmosphere as we walk the quiet streets of Holland Village under the evening sky. It feels too peaceful and too calm as the mercury drops to under the mid-twenties – a welcome respite from the day’s intense heat. It’s not romantic – that’s not my intention – but one could almost imagine being in a different city on Christmas night.
We keep the dinner simple and to the point: seafood pancakes, barbecued pork belly and…I fail to spy with my little eye my “chung guk jang”. No matter, you never really leave a Korean restaurant with an empty stomach, even if you don’t order anything, so there’s that. If you’re one of those who comes to a Korean restaurant just for their banchan, then stay away from Hansang. The selection of side dishes here is pedestrian – it does its job as an appetizer but nothing more. If it’s any consolation, the service is prompt if not sometimes a little jittery as the restaurant fills up, but the dishes pump out of the kitchen pretty fast. They are, after all, raw.
Doesn’t the pork belly look stunning? It’s almost marbled, with the fat streaking across the supple slices of belly. It was an absolute joy to finally satisfy a third of my Korean craving.
The seafood pancake? Not so much. It tasted as if it was frozen just moments ago, thawed for about 20 seconds, sliced and served. It was dry, tasteless, and would’ve certainly done better had it been cooked several minutes more.
Overall, a disappointing show from what must be a once in a blue moon occurrence.