Dim Sum with TLC
When I took a bite of this har gao and the "smiling" cha siew bao (done with a soft and porous bao skin), I was immediately reminded of how my Culinary Institute of America guest, Ms Mai Pham and her husband, Mr Greg Drescher, the vice-president of Strategic Initiatives and Industry Leadership, behaved at the East Ocean Restaurant here a few years back.
They so loved the steamed baos and the har gaos that they went after the pushcart ladies instead of waiting for them to swing by our table.
Then I realised why. Mr Chu Shu Kei came from Hong Kong almost 25 years ago and worked at East Ocean.
He later set up his stall in Chinatown in 2000.
It's hard not to like his humble list of dim sum offerings. To me, these little "touches of the heart", as dim sum is loosely translated, is not about service or decoration.
This version needed none of that "how is everything" wait service reminder or a Chinese tea top-up crew swinging by every 10 minutes.
It does not matter if they are curt, rude or irritatingly friendly.
These dim sums by - I shall acknowledge as - Sifu Chu, are all about the sensation in the mouth.
He makes all these (only six) items by hand, one-by-one, each morning.
He pulls the shutters half down (or up), and you can see the flutter of movement and steam billowing in the little packed-to-the-deck hawker stall.
Allow me to distil my bite-by-bite account of his best little munchies here.
The main thing I look for is the resilience and translucency of the skin (which should be soft, springy yet firm with no tears) and the crunchy prawns should shine through with the first bite.
The prawns should peek through the skin like a red dress through a frosted glass.
It passed on all accounts.
The little hints of sesame oil, seasoning and baking soda gives the hand chopped minced pork a soft and bouncy feel, and it has a taste redolent of what I expect from a good dim sum chef.
The bits of salted egg yolk atop do not add much, but give you the impression that they may lend some extra oomph.
CHAR SIEW AND PRAWN CHEONG FUN
Sifu Chu "pulls" the cheong fun sheet-by-sheet, fresh, inside his crampy little stall.
The rice sheet rolls are firm but have a soft resilient texture.
His shredded char siew comes wok fried, moist and sans the red colour often seen in many others. He is generous with his fillings.
CHAR SIEW BAO
It is one of the fluffiest baos I've had in Singapore.
Soft, airy and porous bread skin encased his wok fried and very moist char siew shreds. This is a winner for me.
The fillings are not overly sweet yet feel just so. It's hard to go back to the so-so wannabes and the ready-made ones from a commercial steamer.
This is the top seller. The chicken feet are so soft and smooth, and when you apply the expert art of deboning them in the mouth, you realise they come off so easily.
The moist and caramelised sauce is moreish.
KF Seetoh, the founder of Makansutra, dabbles in street food businesses like food markets, his own TV shows on cable, publishing food guides, consultancy and online content. He is also the creator of the World Street Food Congress. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Hong Kong Mongkok Tim Sum
- Block 335, Smith Street, #02-097, Chinatown Food Centre
- 11am to 4pm (or sold out), Wednesdays to Sundays