Army chow is put to the test as three local food critics review two menus at the Kranji Camp III cookhouse.
Ask servicemen and women what they think about cookhouse food and responses can range from "I'd rather eat cup noodles", to "It's something I can stomach", to "I'll take a second helping any time". In Singapore, where eating is a national pastime, where does cookhouse food rank among the smorgasbord of hawker delights? Here's what our critics have to say.
Appetiser:Bak Kut Teh (Pork ribs soup)
Main course: Plain rice with lor bak (braised pork), lor egg (boiled egg braised with sauce), braised tau pok (fried tofu) with tau kee (tofu skin), braised salted vegetable, stir-fried cabbage with carrot and mushroom
Dessert: Fresh snow fungus and papaya with a slice of watermelon
The bak kut teh, Singapore Food Industries (SFI) chef Yip Kam Seng emphasised, is not made from 3-in-1 pre-mixed packets; whole garlic, aniseed, cinnamon and soft bone are used to cook the base. "Another difference from commercial bak kut teh is that we don't use pork belly, which is quite fattening. Instead, we use pork collar with the fat removed as a healthier option," he added.
Appetiser: Potato and carrot soup
Main course:Nasi briyani (rice-based foods made with spices, rice, meat, fish, eggs or vegetables) with chicken rendang (slow-cooked dry curry), sweet and sour fish, mutton kheema (minced meat) and sayur lodeh (vegetables in coconut gravy)
Dessert:Chin chow (grass jelly)
In serving the popular local dish to troops, the nasi briyani recipe was tweaked so that it's not a heart attack on a plate. According to Mr Yip, the fat content in this briyani is much lower than what is served in hawker centres. He said: "We use only lean meat, and we use carnation milk instead of coconut milk." He also explained why chin chow, a traditional Chinese dessert, was included in the Muslim menu: "Chin chow has a 'cooling' effect to counter the 'heaty' nature of the briyani."
"It's good that a lot of the meals are centred on local or Asian flavours. Indirectly, it also helps you to relate to your country; reminds you of who you're fighting for. Army food has come a very long way since my time, and soldiers today have no idea how good life is."
Leslie Tay says Appetiser: If you don’t call it bak kut teh, it's actually quite good, because there's a certain expectation to bak kut teh. The pork in the soup is very tender, but I'd prefer more pepper in the soup.
Main: I actually like the chye buay (braised salted vegetable). It's a bit sweet and tangy, and goes well with the other savoury dishes on the plate. I also like the cabbage a lot, it's nice and sweet, and the lor bak (braised meat) is pretty good. My only complaint is that the hard-boiled egg is overcooked.
Dessert: The dessert is not as sweet as what you get in hawker centres, which is good. It's something that I'll be more than happy to take.
Sylvia Tan says Appetiser: I like the soft pork bone in the soup. It's much more interesting to eat than the usual pork ribs. A little more pepper would make the soup better.
Main: The flavours in this dish are very clean, and it's a tasty meal in spite of it being healthy, so it's well done.
Dessert: I like it that the dessert is not rich. I don’t know if soldiers like it this way, but I certainly appreciate it being so un-rich.
KF Seetoh says Appetiser: I would call this a pork soup rather than bak kut teh, because there are certain sensations that come with bak kut teh that I don’t taste here. The pepper kick is not there.
Main: I like the cabbage; it's got enough crunch and texture so the nutrients are preserved. The dish can also do with more lor, because the lor is quite nice. Some hawkers also sell it like this, except with more fat in the pork, but since this is for the Army, less fat is the right thing.
Dessert: The sweetness is just nice, not too cloying, and it finishes off nicely with a piece of fruit, so this whole meal works for me.
Appetiser: It's quite acceptable; nothing to rave about, but it's a nice and healthy home-cooked soup.
Main: The chicken rendang is quite nice, and the taste is not too heavy. It's something that'll remind one of life outside camp, which is a good thing especially for personnel who stay in camp.
Dessert: The chin chow is pleasant and not too sweet. But considering that it's a Muslim menu, the dessert could have been an Indian dessert, such as yoghurt which is also a cooling dessert.
Sylvia Tan says
Appetiser: The soup tastes very wholesome, the type that people cook at home, and I think soldiers will appreciate the taste of home-cooked soup.
Main: I like the sayur lodeh and the mutton, but the fish is a bit tasteless. To make this dish even healthier, you can try cooking fish briyani instead.
Dessert: I like that it's made into a jelly instead of a drink. It tastes very clean and refreshing after all the flavours in the main course, so I think it's a good balance.
KF Seetoh says
Appetiser: The soup is very comforting, and it's got a little bit of pepper in it, which is just nice.
Main: I like the sayur lodeh, but I'm not a fan of any of the meats. Instead of the sweet and sour fish, it could have been an Assam fish stew, or a fish stewed with some masala (a mixture of spices), which would sit more nicely. You can try kashmiri biryani which is healthier than this. This variant uses a lot of dried fruits and nuts and you can modify the masala and use less ghee (butter oil).
Dessert: The taste, texture and sweetness are all there. It tastes very familiar and comforting, so I have no quibbles with this dessert.