Cheng Hoo Tian, named after its original founder-chef, Koh Cheng Hoo, has had a long, rocky history - starting off as a humble eatery catering to the dock-yard workers around Clarke Quay back in 1936, it saw through World War II and the brutal Japanese occupation, then closing down in 1972 when its premises had to close due to government re-development of the area around Clarke Quay/Ellenborough Market (better-known among older Singaporeans as "Teochew pasat" - "pasat" being a Chinese-Singaporean pronunciation of the Malay "pasar" or market).
In its last premises in Tessensohn Road, the restaurant did well, until the landlord increased its rent ten-fold from S$1,000 a month. That's when the Koh brothers decided to close shop in 1976 thereabouts. Many Singaporeans of Teochew descent bemoaned its passing, and missed the culinary talents of the older Koh brother (grandson of the founder, and son of Koh Teck Chuan, who conceptualised most of the dishes in the current menu).
That is, until they found a new home in Keong Saik Road, under the auspices of an antique collector who obviously has a deep appreciation for good Teochew food. So here we have Cheng Hoo Tian in its current incarnation today, located in a 4-storey traditional Chinese shophouse filled with beautiful Chinese antiques and furniture.
Cheng Hoo Tian's cooking is very subtle, and may taste a bit "bland" for some folks. What we had this evening:
- Cold jellied pork and pig-skin: very traditional cold starter - we eschewed the shark-meat version for the pork, and was rewarded with springy, gelatinous blocks of cooked pork-meat and fine strips of boiled pigskin suspended in aspic.
- Fresh crabmeat balls and wintermelon balls in supreme stock: very light & subtle in flavour. The crabmeat and minced pork balls were delicious.
- Teochew country-style "siu-mai": the Teochews' answer to the Cantonese "siu mai". These steamed pork dumplings are called "sio bee" in the Teochew dialect - the "bee" referring to the rice-flour wrappers used to make the small ("sio") dumplings. Unlike the Cantonese "siu-mai", I did not detect any shrimp in these dumplings.
- Teochew country-style two varieties of spring rolls: both types were wrapped in popiah (rice-flour wrappers) and deep-fried. The first variety was savoury, its filling a mix of pork, prawns, dried shrimps, mushrooms; whilst the second variety was slightly sweet: its filling a mix of pork, caramelised peanuts, toasted sesame seeds, candied wintermelon.
- Braised pig's tendon with de-boned goose webs in claypot: garlic pips, capsicums, toasted flakes of dried flounder add flavour to the dish. The goose webs were boiled, deep-fried till puffy, then re-hydrated from cooking into soft, spongy morsels which absorbed the flavoursome gravy.
- Braised "Mee Pok" with Teochew crayfish (slipper lobster) in XO sauce: much milder-tasting than the spicy versions we find in Cantonese establishments here. The crayfish was fresh, and the delicate, light-coloured gravy was a delight to the fine-textured "mee pok" noodles.
Desserts: we ordered two types of traditional Teochew desserts here:
- "Orh nee": Asian purple yam paste, with soft, candied sweet potato, and gingko nuts, covered with a clear sugar syrup. Interestingly, the rendition here contained a sliver of candied pork belly! It was a delight.
- A thick, unctuous wintermelon soup, streaked through with egg-white threads, and containing soft-boiled gingko nuts. The addition of a mere drop of aged (20-year-old) Teochew citrus essence added a rare fragrance to the soup. We were shown the small jar of 20-year-old orange essence, brought in from Swatow (the home county of the Teochew folks in Guangdong province) - we were told that to obtain that small (jam jar-sized) bottle of citrus essence, 300 mandarin oranges and 300 kumquats were preserved and left to mature over 3 years, and the distilled essence were collected at the end of that period. And that jar was brought over from Swatow to Singapore over 20 years ago!
The older Koh brother who mans the kitchen is now 79 years old, but still wields a mean wok-ladle. His sous chef is no spring chicken at 70 years old. But their vast joint experience really shows through in their repertoire of unique traditional Teochew dishes, many not found anywhere else in Singapore.
Cheng Hoo Tian
41 Keong Saik Road
Tel: +65 6382 2222