A Taste of Home: Singaporean Chef Francis Chong on the Local Fare He Misses Most
For more than 30 years, Singaporean chef Francis Chong Wui-choong, has honed his culinary skills, particularly when it comes to delivering the true flavours of his native cuisine. With 20 years under his belt working at the historic Long Beach Seafood Restaurant (UDMC) in Singapore, he can claim expert knowledge of some of Singapore’s most beloved national dishes, such as chilli crab and black pepper crab.
Yet despite gaining such a high reputation in his homeland, Chong decided to leave to bring crowd-pleasing Singaporean favourites to Hong Kongers, launching Can Lah restaurant in April. Here, he delivers Singaporean and Malaysian delights characterised by strong, spicy flavours. One of his highlights is the classic crab bee hoon. “It is the best-selling dish so far,” says Chong. “The soup base has been boiled for eight hours with tons of fresh ingredients including red-spotted sea crabs and chicken. The soup base is so sweet and milky, even better than Singapore’s! There’s a limited quantity prepared and served each day as the ingredients––and even the amount of water used––are precisely calculated.”
The crab bee hoon and other dishes at Can Lah serve to deliver a taste of home for the chef, who has struggled to find truly authentic flavours of Singapore in Hong Kong. But Singapore remains best for his favourite local fare and there are plenty of places that he yearns to return to when he’s next able to go home. Here, he shares his top picks.
What do you miss most on the food and drink front when you are away from Singapore or haven’t been back for a while?
Francis Chong (FC) For drinks, I miss kopi the most. Part of my routine is to have a cup of coffee before work every morning. For food, I miss the vast selection of breakfast food in Singapore. As a multi-ethnic society, you can easily find a variety of Asian cuisine there, such as nasi lemak, char kway teow, or Hokkien mee. All of these are common breakfast dishes that I long for.
What is the first dish you eat when you return and where do you go for it?
FC Once I am back in Singapore, the dish that I crave is crab bee hoon. It gives me a great sense of satisfaction. There are two restaurants that I rate, one is East Treasure Chinese Restaurant, and the other is Mellben Seafood, both of which are famous for their crab dishes.
Do you have a favourite restaurant in Singapore?
FC Boon Tong Kee, located at Balestier Road, is worth mentioning. The restaurant is famous for its Hainanese chicken rice, which is well flavoured, like that at Can Lah, as every grain of rice is nourished with the savoury taste of chicken oil. Since my restaurant also provides Hainanese chicken rice, I understand how complicated the process is for cooking it. From preparing the chicken oil to adding the most fitting spices, it can take up to four or five hours.
If you have visitors or guests with you, where do you ensure you always go to give them a real taste of Singapore?
FC I take them for Singapore laksa, pepper crabs and bak kut teh at the local food markets.
Where do you like to meet up with old friends for food and drinks?
FC I love hanging out with friends at local dai pai dongs and at Newton Food Centre. As we prefer dishes with rich flavours, we usually order seafood, deep-fried dishes and satay skewers. My must-have is stir-fried kam heong with fish head (甘香炒魚頭), which consists of dried shrimps, curry leaf, lemongrass and chilli pepper. Another dish is the Teochew Fish Head Hotpot (潮州魚頭爐), which is like a Singaporean-style hotpot, with a charcoal stove to keep everything nice and warm. These choices are really appetising and go really well with a bottle of beer!
Do you have a favourite bar and/or café in Singapore?
FC Any ordinary bar will do, though sometimes we’ll buy wine from The Straits Wine Company.
What do you always take back home with you when you leave Singapore?
FC I normally bring jerky from Bee Cheng Hiang or Lim Chee Guan as souvenirs for my colleagues and friends. Singaporean- and Malaysian-style sauces are also something I can’t miss––adding a few spoonfuls of sambal sauce to rice makes everything better.
Where do you go to find a taste of home in Hong Kong and what do you hope to bring to the city with Singaporean restaurant Can Lah?
FC I love food from my hometown so my friends in Hong Kong often take me to different Singaporean restaurants. However, no matter how many places I have been to, I haven’t found true Singaporean flavours. At Can Lah, we aim to create authentic Singaporean dishes. To do so, most of our ingredients are imported from Singapore, in the hope of reaching 99 per cent similarity with Singapore’s local flavours. That being said, Hong Kongers are quite picky and have high expectations so for any dishes that we make in Can Lah, we make them to the standard and preferences of Hong Kongers.