Cover Chef Kael Lim (Source: The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong)

Find out the places to hit up in the Lion City for your fix of comfort food, courtesy of The Lounge & Bar's chef de cuisine

As chef de cuisine for The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong's The Lounge & Bar, Singaporean native Kael Lim's workplace might be sky-high, but his cooking is grounded and humble, drawing from his favourite childhood eats from the Lion City to create dishes that have garnered regular fans of his.

Having worked at Singapore's The Ritz-Carlton Millennia, W Hotel and Shangri-La, Lim moved to Hong Kong in November 2020 and has not been able to return home since, given the continuous "popping" of the Singapore-Hong Kong travel bubble. To cope, he's woven the flavours of his hometown into his menu at The Ritz-Carlton, including Australian Kinkawooka mussels in a rich laksa broth, and his signature black pepper crab with fried mantou buns which he's constantly tweaking for the perfect, most comforting version.

Keep reading for Lim's picks of his favourite culinary haunts in Singapore, and find out why he believes chicken rice must always be wrapped in paper.

Read the rest of the A Taste of Home series

What do you miss most in terms of food and drink when you are away from Singapore?

I think it's more of the the the hawker style of food. At every hawker centre, each individual store has their own speciality. I like to go to Lau Pa Sat. It's a bit touristy, so when I have any foreign friends that were to visit to Singapore, I'll bring them to Lau Pa Sat or Newton Food Centre. All these foods are quite inexpensive and there are different kinds of flavours: you've got Malay, Indian, Chinese and Eurasian. I think it's easy and quite fun, actually.

What is the first dish you eat when you return and where do you go for it?

I would actually go for Hokkien mee as I grew up eating it. I go to a stall in Geylang, it's called Swee Gwun. Before I came to Hong Kong I used to have a motorbike, you see, so I would ride around very fast, so if I have a craving or anything, I would ride there. This stall closes at night, and once they run out, they're done. The flavour is something I cannot get anywhere else in Singapore. 

Do you have any favourite restaurants in Singapore, for fine dining and for more casual experiences? 

For casual, I would go for Song Fa Bak Kut Teh. [They make] the white pepper variety [of bak kut teh] and it's very consistent. The soup is refillable; I would always order the pork rib soup and get the most premium part, then I would refill it three or four times [laughs]. By the end of the meal I would be perspiring.

I wouldn't go for traditional fine dining. I'd rather visit a place I worked before: Skirt in W Hotel. It's one of the best steakhouses in Singapore where they use a wood-fired Parrilla grill. It's named after a secondary cut of beef from the diaphragm. If you don't cook it properly, it will become tough. They grill it with different types of wood at very high heat—apple wood, cherry wood—and I will always appreciate a good steak. I'm not a fan of ribeye but I would prefer those types of meat with a good flavour.

See more: A Taste of Home: Chef Edward Voon On His Top Dining Destinations In Singapore

If you have visitors or guests with you, where do you ensure you always go to give them a real taste of Singapore?

A couple of places, to be honest. For grilled items I would take them to Lau Pa Sat; at Newton I would go for the sambal stingray; and East Coast Food Centre for the experience. These are places I miss when I'm away, but that I take for granted when I'm there. 

Do you have any favourite Singaporean heritage dishes and where do you go for them?

Chicken rice, I would say. I grew up eating it as a staple. To get the flavour of the rice and chicken right takes a lot of skill—I think a lot of Singaporeans would agree with that. My favourite chicken rice restaurant is just 50 metres away from my place back in Singapore. It's at a coffee shop that my dad would buy for us when we were kids—the stall is still there. When you take away, they wrap it in a kind of paper that gives it a better flavour. It's a kind of nostalgia. When I was younger, my cousins and I would grow up together. My dad was the youngest of all his siblings, so whenever we had family outings, my dad would buy 35 packets of chicken rice from that same place, and it would be all wrapped up in the paper. We all enjoyed that and the flavour from that stall is totally different [to anywhere else].

Where do you like to meet up with old friends?

I would meet up with them at the kopitiam (traditional coffee shop). The group of friends that I hang out with, we all have motorbikes. So we would call each other up and say, "Let's go in five minutes". I've known them for 18 years already, so we would meet up at the coffee shop and then talk about everything while drinking teh tarik. When you go to a Singaporean restaurant, they will pour the tea to get the foam on top. It's usually made with condensed milk and sugar, but if you have that you won't be able to sleep.

My friends are a multicultural group—some of them are halal, so we have to choose a place that's Muslim-friendly when we hang out. One place is called Al-Salam in Tempanes; you can get good Malay comfort food there like roti prata and mee goreng. 

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Where do you go for Singaporean food in Hong Kong?

I like Cafe Malacca and Can Lah. I also like the cooking of my good friend chef Ng [Tzer Tzun] from The Langham—he came around the same time as me to Hong Kong. But at the end of the day I still try and cook at home. It's nice to be outside but it's also nice to be with yourself and practice once in a while and cook the dishes you miss. That's what most important for the chef, to always depend on yourself.

To be honest, I have a dish here: black pepper crab. When I came here and made it, after a few trials I ended up making it the way locals like it. I have a VIP guest who comes here every week for the crab, so I tweaked and tweaked. I serve it with fried mantou and make it wetter with more gravy, which the locals seem to love. So as a chef, what's most important is to try new things—you don't always have to follow the recipe while respecting the tastes of the people here.

Are there any differences between the preferences of Hongkongers and Singaporeans?

I think there's not much taste difference, but only the spiciness level is different. For example, the spiciness level of the people of Hong Kong, they can take Sichuan food, but sambal is too spicy for them. That is something that I have to get used to and try to tweak my recipes around that. That's the the adaptability of my job. At the end of the day, in Singapore we always look up to Hong Kong in terms of food, you know? And from what I know, my friends here also like to go to Singapore. So I think everyone now in the world, they know about each other. The knowledge is there.


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