THE Business Times' food critic Cheah Ui-Hoon agreed to do this interview on one condition: That she be allowed to wear a wig for the photo shoot so she wouldn't be recognised when she goes on future tastings.
'I seldom get recognised in a restaurant because BT doesn't publish the photographs of its reviewers. I'd like to keep it that way,' she says good-naturedly.
The 38-year-old has worked for the paper's Executive Lifestyle section for seven years as a lifestyle and shopping writer. She also contributes food reviews along with two others.
While she specialises in Chinese food, her real expertise is in hawker food as she was born and raised in street-food paradise Penang.
'It's good that BT doesn't review hawker food, or everything I write will be negative,' she says with a laugh.
Warm and chatty, she worked as a reporter in Penang's The Star newspaper for six years before joining BT.
Cheah, who is single, eats out once or twice a week for work, and writes between one and two food reviews a week, which are published on Mondays.
Objectively speaking, which is a greater food paradise - Singapore or Penang?
Penang for hawker food, by a wide margin. The food culture there is very different. The hawkers and locals really do see their food as an art, so the hawkers have to stick to the traditional way of cooking. If they change anything, the whole island will know. Singapore hawkers take so many shortcuts. But there are definitely better fine-dining restaurants here.
Share a food itinerary in Penang.
For breakfast, head to Macalister Lane at the corner near Burmah Road for kway teow soup with duck meat; and have the island's best chee cheong fun at a stall along the street nearby.
Beat the lunch crowd by heading early to the nasi melayu (rice with your choice of accompaniments) stall at Batu Feringghi opposite the floating mosque.
For tea, get to Padang Brown in Datuk Keramat Road before 4pm, for popiah that will knock your socks off. The Penang version is wetter than the Singapore version, and the stock there is spiked with flavourful essence of crab. The cheh hoo (a Chinese variation of pasembur, an Indian-Muslim salad) with the sweet, frothy sauce is unique.
For dinner, check out Ocean Green seafood restaurant in Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, the so-called Millionaire's Row; and finish it off with nutmeg-accented ice kacang at Hillside hawker centre in Tanjung Bungah.
What's one beef you have about the food scene here?
Restaurants that don't serve plain water and insist that diners buy bottled water. I personally boycott such establishments. Give diners a choice but don't force us to buy bottled water when Singapore's tap water is perfectly drinkable. It's environmentally irresponsible.
How harsh a critic are you?
I look for how ingredients are matched, and whether the dish is cooked properly. Ingredients are important, but good cooking is what brings out the best in them. I try to give the reason when I don't like something so the reader sees my viewpoint, because ultimately, the appreciation of food is subjective.
What's your favourite restaurant here?
Frankly, I don't have one. What I have are favourite dishes at different restaurants. For instance, I can always find something to enjoy at Straits Kitchen in Grand Hyatt hotel, especially the beef rendang and chicken rice. For steak, I'd head to Brasserie Wolf at The Pier At Robertson, and for lamb chops, to Four Seasons hotel's One Ninety.
Tenshin's tempura is really special, and I definitely won't turn down invites to Au Jardin in the Botanic Gardens and Garibaldi in Purvis Street.
Most of the top Chinese restaurants in town are above average, with restaurants like Jade in Fullerton Hotel, My Humble House in Esplanade Mall, Summer Palace in The Regent hotel, Min Jiang in Rochester Park, Pine Court in Meritus Mandarin hotel and Jiang Nan Chun in Four Seasons giving good contemporary interpretations.
What's your favourite junk food?
Cheese-flavoured Twisties and Calbee prawn crackers, sour plums and dried olive strips (ka na) flavoured with salt and chilli that I've only ever found in Shanghai. The ultimate treat when I can get them is American chain Krispy Kremes' original glazed doughnuts.
Can you cook?
When I need to, yes, but just simple stuff. My fix-it-fast contributions when I get invited to potlucks are fried bee hoon with canned pig trotters and aglio olio with Chinese mushrooms. I make a mean Southern-style pumpkin pie, and I once made stewed pears in tea for dessert for friends who didn't really eat sweet stuff, and they raved about it.
How do you stay healthy with all this eating?
I try to eat as simply as possible when I'm not doing a food review - to cut down on meat and to have more vegetables and fruit. I also run, but it's not to lose weight. I got conned by a friend into running a 10k race in 2003, which progressed to a half-marathon in 2004, then an all-out 42.195km in 2005 and 2006. And I'm not even the athletic type.
But after two full marathons, I have the same percentage of fat today as I did four years ago. So it's not always true that running can help you lose weight. My fat's clearly clinging on for dear life.
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