Food blogging demographics are a decidedly odd thing. A totally disproportionate number of us have at least one South-East Asian parent. (KevinEats has noticed the same phenomenon in LA food blogging circles.) And of that disproportionate number, an even more disproportionate number have family from Singapore or Malaysia. Not so much of a surprise, I suppose; I’ve never been anywhere else in the world where food is such an ingrained part of the overall culture of a country.
So when Goz (behind the cooker) and Wen (front of house) started up the +(65)/plusixfive Supper Club, named for the Singapore telephone code, they probably shouldn’t have been as surprised as they were that the first night’s bookings filled up with a positive legion of bloggers nostalgic for pandan cake and crispy fried anchovies. At my table alone, there were four of us, shutters clicking, making “eeee!” noises every time a new dish arrived, and slapping each other away with the serving spoons in an attempt to get to the best bits.
Supper clubs are a tricky thing for the hosts to balance. Too much formality can be uncomfortable for diners; too little, and your service can fall apart. You’ve got to hope that your guests will get on well: ideally, the food should provide a talking point to get conversation moving. I’m amazed that this was only the first time that Goz and Wen, with help from their friend Alex, had hosted a supper club. The service was slick; the hosts were warm and great fun to chat with. The company was superb – nothing brings a table of strangers together better than a shared interest in a particular cuisine – and the food, the most important part of the evening, was like going back to Malaysia and eating in my auntie’s house.
Goz prepares the food in a tiny kitchen area overlooking the open-plan dining room. There are two rice cookers on the go, churning out fragrant coconut rice. There’s a wonderland of woks hanging from the walls, and by some magical space-bending trick, dish upon dish upon tray upon baking sheet of food keeps coming out of the tiny space. Where was it all hiding?
I feel personally responsible for putting Goz to a lot of trouble over one dish. We got talking on Twitter about kueh pie tee, or top hats: cotton-reel sized shells made from a very thin rice flour batter, and filled with any number of ingredients. They’re a nightmare to prepare, and I’ve never managed to make them well enough to blog (there’s lots of faffing with heated brass moulds on a stick and woks full of terrifying boiling oil). So I was touched, thrilled and a bit ashamed when Goz made a giant stack of the things in addition to the eight courses already on the menu.
Goz is in charge of the kitchen, for the most part, while Wen deals with the administrative side of things. She also contributed a family recipe: a braised Hakka pork belly and mustard greens concoction which possesses the uncanny ability to take you straight back to your grandmother’s knee, being spoon-fed coconut rice soaked with the rich soy gravy. (If you have a Hakka, Malaysian or Singaporean grandmother, that is. If yours is from Skegness, I doubt the pork belly will have quite the same impact.) She plans to blog the recipe; I’ll add a link here when she does. (Update, about four hours later: with terrifying promptness, Wen has blogged the recipe here.)
Even if you’re not an expert on Singaporean/Malaysian food, you’re likely to recognise some of what arrives on the table. Goz’s chicken satay, lemongrass-fragrant and spiked with peanut sauce, is terrific, little nuggets of skin left on so they crisp under the grill. Beef rendang is also a dish you might have come across in restaurants in the UK. Goz’s beef rendang (my recipe for rendang is here – you’ll notice that rendang is basically impossible to photograph in a way that makes it look pretty) has a twist to it, though; it’s made with succulent, flavour-packed ox cheeks.
Tofu in a sesame and soy dressing was served with century eggs. I love century eggs: back in Malaysia we ate them with strips of pickled ginger, and I think they’re fantastic studding a bowl of congee with shreds of roast pork. They also work as a good personality test. I find that if someone who’s never encountered one before eats a piece with gusto, transparent brown white and greeny blue yolk and all, I’m almost certainly going to like them.
Goz saved the savoury dish that we thought the best for the end. Teochew braised duck with hard-boiled eggs and spongy tofu, all the better to soak up a gorgeously rich, dense and meaty dark sauce. Terrific alongside the Hainanese vegetables with glass noodles and a dollop of that coconut rice.
Teh tarik (pulled tea) ice cream made with an almost impossibly strong black tea was a lovely way to cool the mouth. Teh tarik is a sweet, strong, milky tea which is cooled by pouring in great loops between two glasses until it’s warm and frothy. Goz served it with crushed caramelised cornflakes; a terrific flavour match and texturally really good with the ice cream. Kuih bingka ubi, a lovely soft, syrupy, mouth-melting cassava cake, was meant to be a petit four to accompany our coffee, but our table ate them all in about five seconds flat, before the coffee had even brewed. Goz, not to be outdone, toasted up some pandan cake for us instead. Pandan cake will be familiar to all Singaporean or Malaysian readers, and can be bought at some oriental bakeries and supermarkets in the UK. It’s a very light chiffon cake with a bright green crumb, flavoured with the grassy fragrance of pandan leaves. None of us had every tried it toasted before, and I don’t think I’m ever going to go back to eating it straight again. Broken into chunks and grilled until the edges are barely crisp and golden, it made for a lovely accompaniment to the coffee, imported from Singapore roasters.
I live an hour and a half from +(65)/plusixfive, but I’m already planning my next trip. Goz, Wen and friends are doing something really special here: Singaporean home cooking and Singaporean hospitality that makes you feel a million miles away from London. Keep an eye on their website or follow them on Twitter @plusixfive to find out when they’re next hosting an evening, and bring plenty of Tiger Beer!