A Taste Of Home: Nelson Htoo On The Dishes He Grew Up With In Singapore
Burmese restaurateur Nelson Htoo moved around a lot when he was a child, so while he was born in Myanmar, he spent his teenage years in Singapore due to studies. "The concept of home has never been defined by geography," he explains to Tatler Dining. Despite all these location changes, he found a feeling of comfort in food—specifically, Burmese cooking at home and the variety of Asian cuisines he was exposed to in Singapore.
After completing a bachelor's degree in London and master's degree in Hong Kong, he realised that these flavours of home come from "a larger regional standpoint—a combination of Southeast Asian flavours that also tend to find themselves seeping into Burmese food and vice versa." That is what he aims to recreate at Club Rangoon, the authentic Burmese restaurant he established in Hong Kong, where he's currently based. Here, he offers the dishes that his mum and grandma would make for him, coupled with innovative cocktails concocted by renowned mixologist Jack Byrne.
As Htoo continues to make a mark promoting Burmese cuisine in Asia, we talk to him about his younger years growing up in Singapore and ask him to reveal some of the dishes and drinks he misses the most.
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?
Of course, first and foremost I miss the home cooking that I grew up with, especially since my family continues to live in Singapore, so I also miss that sort of communal feasting with regards to Burmese cuisine. I think having grown up in Singapore and being there through various stages of life that were quite defining, there are just certain memories that you attach to certain foods or places that you can’t quite replicate elsewhere. Food in that sense is so intrinsically linked to experiences—not just what the actual food or drink was, but also the setting, context, how the food was consumed and how those experiences unfolded.
If you have visitors or guests with you, where do you ensure you always go to give them a real taste of home?
It’s always difficult to recommend places to guests and visiting friends, because the Singapore food landscape is just so diverse. There are always too many places and not enough time. I ensure that my guests always get a taste of some local classics like chilli crab, chicken rice, and nasi lemak (personal favourites); but if time permits, I advise them to check out any new, innovative openings around town to make sure they really get a holistic idea of the booming food scene in Singapore.
I do love taking people to Newton Food Centre—stall 74 in particular. While it has a reputation for being a tourist trap, I think it’s genuinely worth it. It was also one of the first eateries we visited as a family when we moved to Singapore, so definitely some nostalgia there, but it kept us coming back regularly. Aunty Jojo from the stall would recognise us immediately because of how often we had frequented the place since I was a child. Their sambal stingray is top-notch!
What are your favourite heritage dishes and where are some of the places you go to find them?
My all-time favourite would have to be chicken rice (steamed!)—a simple dish that never gets old. Maybe I’m biased because of my experience, but Boon Tong Kee’s chicken rice hits the spot. While a lot of people would crave a McSpicy after a solid night out back in the day, I was ready to devour plates of chicken rice at River Valley at 4am. That place always had my back!
Where do you like to meet up with old friends for food and drinks?
I love visiting new places with old friends, so I look for new restaurants or bars whenever I’m back. A classic place to frequent though would be The Guild on Keong Saik. The casual pub setting is ideal for a catch-up, while their excellent selection of Young Master craft beer on tap seals the deal. Of course, time spent at home catching up is always great too. If that’s the case, we might order in from Inle Restaurant at Peninsula Plaza, if we’re craving an authentic Burmese feast.
What drink do you often order?
Honestly, a sweet, soothing kopi c or teh tarik will do for me. The teh tarik is also very similar to Burmese milk tea. While a really good cup of coffee can be everything you need, something like teh tarik is a nice source of comfort and a classic reminder of the times back in Myanmar.
Do you have a favourite bar that you visit when you’re in Singapore?
Manhattan is a long-standing favourite for me. The expansive whisky focus makes it a timeless choice, and it’s always a very chilled environment to be in and to catch up with friends. It’s perfect if you’re peckish as well, because their bar bites are really, really good. Try the lobster rolls!
What do you always take back home with you when you leave Singapore?
Just the absolute essentials: balachaung and lahpet. Balachaung is deep-fried shrimp relish and lahpet is fermented tea leaves, both staples within Burmese cuisine. Just add to any dish for that extra kick of flavour.
Where do you go to find authentic flavours of home where you currently live in Hong Kong?
My restaurant, Club Rangoon, was born out of a craving for those flavours of home and wanting to share them with others in Hong Kong. I’m very grateful to be able to get my Burmese fix at my own restaurant, with chef Karisa Cheque creating the most beautiful Burmese dishes.