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Monday, December 16th, 2019

So long Singapore

Closed
by August 23, 2016 General

During a recent lunch-time at the Singapore Restaurant in Ottawa’s west end, laksa was on the tables and minds of nearly everyone in the room. 

With just a few exceptions, guests were digging into deceptively small but filling bowls of the esteemed Malaysian soup, which at the Singapore consists of a heap of thin rice noodles, topped with curry-tinged chicken, shrimp and egg, in an intriguingly savoury broth.

What’s more, when a restaurant regular entered, he was quickly swapping ideas with another customer about how to duplicate the Singapore’s most popular dish at home before he could order a bowl of it for himself.

“The onions … do you cook them till they’re brown or just translucent?” the regular asked.

Owner Ah Bah Lim could only laugh. He had given those customers a few hints about making the Singapore’s laksa at home, but never the complete recipe. “I say, ‘ You go figure it out.’ ”

The Singapore’s laksa-ologists have just a few more days to do their research: the restaurant is to close this Friday after 34 years in business. Lim, 69, and his wife, Hsiao Foo Huang, the restaurant’s chef, are retiring.

The Singapore’s building on Kempster Avenue, which followed an earlier Singapore in a Carling Avenue strip mall near Richmond Road, has been sold by Lim, who is not sure what kind of restaurant will take his business’s place.

Lim and his wife opened the first Singapore in 1982, two years after they emigrated from Malaysia to Ottawa to join Huang’s relatives, who had already come here. Lim and Huang had degrees in commerce and chemistry, respectively, from the University of Otago in New Zealand.

But Lim, who had worked as an auditor in his homeland, did not want to work for someone else in Ottawa after his initial job here. During the early 1980s recession, Lim worked 15 months on the night shift at a bakery, before he and his family decided to give running a restaurant a shot.

Lim says that he and his wife didn’t lack for kitchen skills even if they weren’t formally trained. “We were always cooking,” he says, explaining that while in university they cooked Malaysian-themed dinners. “As a student you have to learn to cook, anyway. It’s not that difficult.”

The restaurant drew a dedicated clientele over the years with a virtually unchanged menu, not just for laksa at lunch but for a range of Malaysian Chinese and other dishes, including tamarind-based assam dishes, curry puffs, satay skewers, turmeric chicken, and sambal shrimps with mee hun noodles.

Although Ottawa’s Asian food scene has advanced in the decades since the Singapore opened, few Malaysian restaurants have followed in Lim’s footsteps. 

Other well-educated Malaysians who came to Ottawa found company jobs as the economy improved, says Lim. “Why would they want to go and do a restaurant? It’s not that easy. It’s easier to work for people.”

Lim recalls one Malaysian restaurant that was open briefly in the 1990s in Chinatown. “Their laksa was totally bad!” he says, contending that the chicken meat in the soup had been boiled to make broth, and thus rendered flavourless. “How the hell is it going to be good?”

The Singapore allowed Lim and Huang to pay for the post-secondary studies of their four children, who pitched in at the restaurant as soon as they were able. But none will take over the business.

In recent years, over four lunch and five dinner services a week, the Singapore has been just a three-person operation — Lim, Huang and long-time server Andrew Fraser, who “eats laksa almost every day,” according to Lim.

The lean staffing is “the reason we can sustain it here,” adds Lim.

Business has dropped over the last five years, he says. People’s tastes have changed, Lim says, pointing to the proliferation of Thai restaurants in the city. “You think they’re doing great? There’s too many of them.”

In the old days, the Singapore was full every Friday with guests who dressed up for a night out, he says. “People don’t dress up now. It’s changing.” 

But while fewer people are coming in to eat, the cost of running the restaurant has not dropped. “City Hall is killing us,” says Lim, citing his property tax bill. 

He says that after he closes the restaurant, he will have more time to visit his children who live out of town, and to return to Malaysia, which he has not visited in more than a dozen years. 

He says he has positive feelings about his restaurant career, and just one regret — that he didn’t make more friends outside of long hours at the eatery.

“All of my friends here are my customers,” he says. “It’s not like I can go dining with them or hang out or visit them.”

Or, share that laksa recipe with them. He has entrusted the formulation to just one person, a nephew who has a restaurant in Toronto. That relative, he says, is the son of the couple that sponsored Lim and his wife to come to Canada. “How can I refuse him?” Lim says.


Below are three recipes for Singapore dishes that Lim and his wife shared at the Citizen’s request more than 25 years ago. Sadly, none is for laksa.

Shrimps with Pineapple

Makes: 4 servings

1 lb (450 g) large shrimp, peeled and deveined

1/2 tsp (2.5 mL) salt

1/2 tsp (2.5 mL) white pepper

1 tbsp (15 mL) cornstarch

3 tbsp (45 mL) vegetable oil, divided

1 cup (250 mL) chopped onions

1 cup (250 mL) sliced carrots

1 cup (250 mL) sliced celery

1/2 tsp (2.5 mL) chopped garlic

1 tsp (5 mL) paprika

1/2 tsp (2.5 mL) ground cumin

1/2 tsp (2.5 mL) salt (second amount)

1/2 tsp (2.5 mL) sugar

1/4 tsp (1 mL) cayenne, or to taste

1 cup (250 mL) chopped pineapple, with juice

1 cup (250 mL) chicken broth

2 tbsp (30 mL) chopped green onions (garnish)

1. Put the shrimp in a bowl and add 1/2 tsp salt, the white pepper, cornstarch and 1 tablespoon of the vegetable oil.

2. Toss gently and marinate 20 minutes.

3. In a large wok, heat the remaining oil and sauté the onions, carrots and celery 1 minute.

4. Add the garlic, paprika, cumin, 1/2 tsp salt, sugar and cayenne and sauté for 20 seconds.

5. Add the pineapple and juice and the chicken broth and cook 4 minutes.

6. Add the shrimps and stir-fry 2 to 4 minutes, until the shrimps are just cooked through and the sauce has thickened.

7. Serve garnished with green onions.

A plate of Sizzling Onion Beef art Singapore in Ottawa Thursday Aug 11, 2016. Singapore is closing after many years in Ottawa

A plate of Sizzling Onion Beef art Singapore in Ottawa Thursday Aug 11, 2016. Singapore is closing after 34 years in Ottawa Tony Caldwell / Postmedia

Sizzling Onion Beef

Makes: 4 servings

1 lb (450 g) inside round of beef, thinly sliced (1-by-2-inch/2.5-by-5-cm pieces, that are 1/8 inch/3-mm thick)

1 1/2 tsp (7.5 mL) cinnamon

1 1/2 tsp (7.5 mL) garlic powder

1 tsp (5 mL) salt

1/2 tsp (2.5 mL) white pepper

1 tbsp (15 mL) cornstarch

3 tbsp (45 mL) vegetable oil, divided

2 cups (500 mL) chopped onion (diced in ½-inch/1.3 cm squares)

1 cup (250 mL) sliced carrots

1 cup (250 mL) chopped green pepper (½-inch/1.3 cm squares)

1 cup (250 mL) broccoli florets

3 tbsp (45 mL) dark soy sauce

1 cup (250 mL) chicken broth

1. Put beef in a bowl and add cinnamon, garlic powder, salt, white pepper, cornstarch and 1 tablespoon (15 mL) of vegetable oil.

2. Toss and marinate 1 hour.

3. In a wok, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons (30 mL) oil until very hot.

4. Sauté beef very quickly until nearly cooked, about 30 seconds. Remove from wok.

5. Sauté onions, carrots, green pepper and broccoli 2 minutes.

6. Add the soy sauce and chicken broth and return beef to the wok.

7. Cook 2 minutes and serve immediately.

Mee Hun

Makes: 4 servings

1/2 lb (225 g) chicken breast meat, trimmed of fat and skin and cut into thin slices (1 ½-by-1-by-1/4-inches/4-by-2.5-cm-by-6 mm)

1/2 lb (225 g) small, peeled shrimp

For the marinade:

1/2 tsp (2.5 mL) salt

2 tsp (10 mL) vegetable oil

1 tsp (5 mL) cornstarch

Dash white pepper

Assembly:

3 tbsp (45 mL) vegetable oil (second amount)

1/2 lb (225 g) bok choy, washed, dried and sliced

1/2 lb (225 g) Mee Hun noodles ( 1/2 a package), soaked in hot water for 1 hour, drained and cooled

1/2 tsp (2.5 mL) salt

4 tbsp (60 mL) dark soy sauce

1/2 lb (225 g) bean sprouts

1 tbsp (15 mL) vegetable oil (third amount)

3 large eggs

2 tbsp (30 mL) chopped green onions

1. Put the chicken in one bowl and the shrimp in another. Combine the marinade ingredients and pour half over the chicken and half over the shrimp. Toss to coat well.

2. To assemble: Heat the 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil in the wok until hot. Add the chicken pieces and stir-fry for 1 minute. Add the shrimps and stir-fry 30 seconds.

3. Add the bok choy and stir-fry 1 minute. Add the Mee Hun noodles, salt and soy sauce and stir-fry 3 minutes. Add the bean sprouts and cook for 30 seconds.

4. Make a well in the centre of the Mee Hun and add the tablespoon of vegetable oil. Break the eggs into the well, cover the noodles for 30 seconds, then stir-fry everything together for 2 minutes.

5. Serve on a large platter and garnish with the chopped green onions.

phum@postmedia.com
twitter.com/peterhum 

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