YOU'D expect Berita Harian's food critic Alijah Batcha to be a walking directory on Malay eateries. But the 53-year-old, who has written reviews for the Malay newspaper for the past four years, actually spends more time sampling non-Malay food - Chinese, Western, Mediterranean and Indonesian food that is certified halal.
'That's because there's nothing really new in Malay cuisine. I'd rather share with our readers new types of food they can try,' says the straight-talking mother of two adult children.
She eats out once a week for work, and her recommendations are published every Sunday.
An avid cook and baker, she often shares her homemade bread, quiche and kueh lapis with her colleagues.
Once and for all, which is the best place for nasi lemak in Singapore?
To me, Warong Jawa in Bedok South hawker centre is the best. The rice is fantastic, I tell you. Every time the owner lifts the lid of the pot, oh my, the aroma. Not only that, it costs only $1 for a good portion of rice, sambal, fried fish, omelette and cucumber. But you have to go between 7 and 11am every day. After that, they're sold out.
I don't find the famous nasi lemak stalls in Changi Village anything special. Selera Rasa at Adam Road hawker centre is good, but then it's $4 for a lot of things like fried chicken or otah. Sometimes, you don't need all these things.
Which is your favourite restaurant or hawker stall?
I don't have one. I don't go back to the places that I gave good reviews to because the owners will always give me free food or discounts, and I'd feel so bad.
This is especially when they cut out my article and put it in front of the shop. Once, this really good Chinese restaurant blew up my photo so big that when I went back to eat, I had to put on my sunglasses. I was so embarrassed.
Which restaurant got an excellent review from you recently?
Garuda Padang Cuisine in Cairnhill Place. It was real, authentic Indonesian cooking. I liked the beef tendon curry, which was so good and tender.
How harsh are you as a critic?
I won't feature a restaurant if the food is really bad because it affects people's livelihood. For places where there are good and bad dishes, I'd just highlight the good.
But I'm a picky eater in real life. I went to a popular cafe chain once and the aglio olio was like pasta soaked in sea water. I sent it back. If I order steak and the meat is too raw, I'd also send it back.
What dish, when done badly, really irks you?
I don't like it when a dish has too much garlic or ginger. These are only basic ingredients so they shouldn't overpower the food.
What's your biggest beef about the Singapore food scene?
The lack of good traditional Malay cuisine served in a fine-dining ambience. After Aziza's restaurant in Emerald Hill closed in the 1990s, there hasn't been one. Hajah Maimunah in Jalan Pisang in Kampong Glam serves good food, but it's a casual eatery. You can't exactly entertain VIPs there.
What's your signature dish?
Indian-style chicken in yoghurt. I love it because it's sour and spicy. I like to eat it with rice or naan (Indian flat bread).
What's unusual in your fridge?
I love to bake, so there's always bread flour and a bottle of yeast. I bake every other week, and I make things like cinnamon rolls, raisin bread and French loaf.
What is your biggest food weakness?
I love pasta. Anything with pasta I will eat, no matter what sauce it comes in - carbonara, aglio olio or bolognese.
Where can one find the best rendang in Singapore?
Che Ros Nasi Padang at Block 125, Toa Payoh Lorong 2. I tell you, this is where I go when I crave for rendang. The makcik (auntie) makes it differently from other places. She half-fries the meat first, then she simmers it again - so it's double-cooked. It's a bit expensive, at $2 for a small portion, but it's worth it.
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