In the heart of the Chinatown area of Singapore was an old faded hotel and restaurant known as the Majestic. I remember the building being one of those relics from the 1930’s unkempt but with lots of potential. Our family used to go to the restaurant for good inexpensive Chinese food but certainly not a gourmet experience by any measure. In 2006 the hotel underwent a complete transformation into an incredibly stylish establishment with an equally modern restaurant. Decorated with custom designed furniture, chandeliers from the Mooi Weer Collection and sculpture by Cai Zhi Song, the restaurant is a modern Chinese art collector’s dream. The food at the restaurant reflects this environment and was created by the modern Chinese master chef Yong Bing Ngen whom I had the opportunity to chat with last week. The restaurant has received numerous accolades since its opening in January 2006. In conjunction with the Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24 event I’ve arranged a dinner at the Majestic Restaurant.
Unhappy and failing in high school Yong Bing Ngen (楊彬源) decided he was ready to set out and explore his future on his own. He announced his intention to his schoolmates one day and left school the next to work at his brother-in-law’s restaurant as a dishwasher. Without a definite plan his mother was concerned for his prospects, and advised him to learn a trade. He pondered her counsel while doing dishes and took a peek at the cooks in the kitchen. It was a “kopi tiam” or a family-run restaurant serving local Chinese food. He was intrigued by the activities in the kitchen and decided cooking was going to be his trade. From this humble beginning Chef Yong went on to become one of Singapore’s most innovative Chinese chefs, and chef owner of the Majestic Restaurant and Jing.
We left our comfortable air-conditioned car and entered a large corrugated shed that houses the Orchard View Yong Tau Foo Restaurant in Kuala Lumpur on a recent hot sunny afternoon. Although the shed is open-sided it sits between two similar restaurants so there is no cross breeze to speak of. By the time we were seated I was already drenched with sweat. I couldn’t wait to order one of the ice cold drinks that always start a meal in restaurants throughout Malaysia and Singapore.
As an open-minded omnivore, I enjoy vegetarian dishes as much as meat dishes. On many occasions I’ve successfully made vegetarian dishes for my vegetarian friends. Many were surprised at the diversity of Chinese vegetarian dishes and commented how flavorful and hearty they were. The key to a rich tasty vegetarian dish is to make use of what is known as umami, which is a Japanese word used to express the fifth taste in addition to the generally accepted four tastes of sweet, salty, sour and bitter. In Chinese umami is known as xian (鮮) and making stock full of umami is the basis for a successful vegetarian dish.