Sunday, 31 August 2014

Singapore hawker dishes: Fish-head steamboat

The ingredients are simple; it’s the broth that’s the secret

There are steamboats — and then there are fish-head steamboats. If you don’t already know, a steamboat is an Asian hotpot of a simmering stock in which one cooks meat and vegetables. While the steamboat scene in Singapore is a hodgepodge of Thai, Sichuan, Japanese and Korean buffet varieties in restaurants, the classic Singapore hawker steamboat for a family dinner out is a fish-head steamboat. If you want to get off the beaten tourist cuisine trail in Singapore, try one!

An authentic fish-head steamboat usually comes in a hardy stainless steel, specially designed vessel, dented and scratched with marks from years of use — at a hawker stall you won’t find the fancy tables of steamboat restaurants, with a built-in cooker split into two or more for a variety of broths. The real deal is filled with charcoal and comes with a hole in the centre, which functions like a chimney spout for the fumes to escape. While a regular electric steamboat used in restaurants or homes can do the job, it imparts none of the smoky, fragrant flavour akin to wok breath — only real fires create sufficient heat and smokiness.

A fish-head steamboat is primarily made up of — no prizes for guessing — a fish head plus bits of meat, skin and tendons (all the hard-to-distinguish parts, which are sweeter, more flavourful and more colourful than white flesh to a connoisseur). Fish-head steamboat stalls typically offer a few types of fish to choose from, such as promfret, garoupa, mackerel and snapper, which are all firm and remain in large chunks when cooked. A few other ingredients like Napa cabbage and yams will also be served, to create a thick consistency of broth.

It’s the broth though that steals the show. It’s simmered for hours with pre-fried fish bones and sometimes pork and chicken, plus ginger to remove ‘fishiness’ and sour plum to make it a bit tangy; finally, morsels of dried flatfish are baked and added as a garnish. A variety of vinegar-based chilli dips are provided to go with the fish pieces.

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