Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Battle of the Popiah: Glory VS Kway Guan Huat

On a recent eating excursion I had the opportunity to sample two famous popiah eateries in the East, both of which made it to The Straits Times’ list of the Top 8 popiahs in Singapore. The two eateries were Glory Catering and Kway Guan Huat, the latter of which is ST’s reigning popiah champion.

For any readers who might not know what a popiah is, here is a government sanctioned definition: http://infopedia.nlb.gov.sg/articles/SIP_891_2005-01-10.html

Glory Catering’s popiah is nonya styled with an egg flour skin, which is relatively rare in popiah eateries here. As the name implies egg is added into the flour skin, providing a soft and chewy texture. This is something that I really enjoy. It also holds nostalgic value for me because it brings me back the days when I was a primary school lad in Serene Center (a popular hangout then), where I sampled my first egg-skin popiah from an eatery specializing in it. It was extremely memorable. Unfortunately I have never been able to find another stall selling the egg-skin rolls since the closure of that eatery, let alone an equal. That is until the helpful foodies of the Makansutra forum clued me into Glory Catering which has an eatery branch in the Katong. So how’s the popiah at Glory?

Glory Catering’s Popiah oozing sweetsauce onto the plate

On first inspection I was mildly disappointed as the skin did not look as wholesomely yellow and spongy as my first impression of the dish at Serene Center. Fortunately the visual discrepancy didn’t matter too much as the skin yielded a decent degree of chewy softness. This is one juicy popiah as you can see from the picture above and yet the skin was resilient enough to not go soggy despite the sauces in the roll.

The insides of a Glory Popiah

The main part of the filling consisted of the usual suspects like braised shredded turnip, shrimp, sliced omelette, and fresh ingredients such as bean sprouts and lettuce. Also wrapped were the condiments of chilli paste which provided a sharp spiciness, balanced off by the mellow tasting sweet flour sauce. Garlic paste rounded the whole thing off with a strong but pleasant piquancy. This is no weak-flavoured popiah as the combination of the condiments gave quite a punch. Everything is wrapped tightly together with the egg-flour skin and blends to form a very satisfying and wholesome chomp.

Following that pretty satisfying experience at Glory, my foodie friend and I walked down all the way down Joo Chiat Road to the next popiah location: Kway Guan Huat. This eatery started off as a popiah skin retailer as early as 1938 and has to be one of the oldest popiah stalls in Singapore. They are famous for making their popiah skins fresh on the premises, something that only a small handful of local popiah eateries can boast of nowadays. It is also as mentioned previously, The Straits Times’ food writer Teo Pau Lin’s no.1 choice.

After walking past about 400 units of old shop-houses and Joo Chiat’s red light stretch, we arrived at our destination. It was an hour before closing time and the place was nearly empty. We sat and ordered.

Kway Guan Huat’s popiah came in a flour skin, which is the more conventional style of popiahs you get in Singapore. Unfortunately the skin was a disappointment and did not stand out from the rest of the popiah selling crowd, despite having all that reputation. Whether this is a closing-time related lapse in quality or otherwise I’m not sure, but this cannot have been the same popiah skin that food writer Teo Pau Lin raved about.

Kway Guan Huat’s popiah as served in styrofoam box. Note breaking popiah skin, tsk tsk…

The filling was comparatively unremarkable too, being relatively bland and tasting much the same as any other popiah one might get on the island. There is, however, one factor that differentiated this popiah from the others and that is the usage of ti poh in the filling. Ti poh, or dried fish crisps were a traditional popiah ingredient but somehow its usage died off in most places. The crunchy bits of fish added another textural dimension to the popiah which was interesting.

Seeing that I was taking photos of the food, the lady who served me guessed that the photos were for my blog. She took that opportunity to recommend the kueh pie tee, which I agreed to try. Like the popiah, the filling for the kueh pie tee was nothing to be raved about since it is comprised mainly of the same batch of braised turnip. Apart from that, there was only a bit of lettuce, sweet flour sauce and chili paste. Lacking were the other kueh pie tee toppings such as egg, peanuts or shrimp. On the upside the pie tee shells came warm and very crispy which was good. These were obviously made on the premises, judging from the slightly irregular lips of these pie tee shells – nothing like the neat looking clones that come mass produced. It crumbled and mixed with the moist ingredients when bitten into, salvaging the morsel to an extent. However, it also left a slight aftertaste of oil which is unfortunate.

Now, it would be pretty obvious who the winner of this popiah battle is. Glory’s popiah is probably the best popiah I’ve had in a long while. They do charge a premium for their egg-skin popiah ($2.20) but for that chewy egg-flour skin and flavourful, juicy filling, it is well worth it.

139 East Coast Road
Singapore 428829
Tel: 63441749

95 Joo Chiat Road
Singapore 427389
Tel: 63442875

Friday, December 7, 2007

First Encounter with Saba-zushi

The basement supermarket of Isetan Scotts seems to be perennially organizing one Japanese food festival after another. This time round their stalls featured Kyoto style saba-zushi. Saba-zushi is a dish consisting of a side of mackerel that was marinated with salt and vinegar, pressed and wrapped onto a roll of sushi rice. The result is an ovoid sushi “loaf” that is served cut into thick slices.

The style of sushi was said to bring out the unique taste of mackerel. Moreover curing the mackerel was the traditional Kyotoite way of preparing the fish, as the city being situated inland did not have ready access to fresh seafood in the past.

Having never eaten this sort of saba-zushi before, the stall at the food festival certainly perked my interest. The sushi looked similar to pictures I have seen in sushi books, and there was a native Japanese chef making them behind the counter of the stall which added to the authenticity factor. I was initially apprehensive however as they only sold the sushi in full-meal servings of 8 thick slices and should I not enjoy it I would have a hard time finishing it. Not to mention it would be a waste of 15 bucks.

With some cajoling from my friend though, I finally agreed to take the plunge. The item was paid for, and then brought outside where there were some seats at which I could savour this culinary novelty. As with any food that I’m not familiar with it took a while for the flavours to register and for me to determine whether I liked it or not.

After I had finished the first piece I decided that I did.

The taste of the cured fish – tangy and savoury – was cushioned by the comforting carbohydrates of sushi rice, creating a hearty mouthfeel. The vinegar which marinated the fish was also nicely echoed by the subtly vinegared sushi rice, blending into a refreshing savour that keeps one’s appetite going despite several helpings of rich mackerel and rice.

This is a dish that makes its impact using simple ingredients, letting the natural flavours take the forefront. I’m not too sure how this compares to good saba-zushi in Kyoto, but in general I had a positive impression of the dish and might return to the stall for another go at it before the food festival ends.

The Isetan Japan Food Festival will last till the 17th of December so you have until then to enjoy Kyoto style saba-zushi in Singapore.

350 Orchard Road
Basement 1
Shaw House
Singapore 238868
Tel: 6733 1111