Nanyang Chinese fusion cuisine done right at Famous Treasure

There’s an abundance of Chinese restaurants in Singapore, many of which specialise in specific regional cuisine such as Cantonese, Teochew, Hokkien, Sichuan, Hakka etc. But even though Famous Treasure is also a Chinese restaurant, they don’t quite fit the mold.

Yes, they have Cantonese roast meats on their menu and serve traditional Teochew orh nee dessert, but what makes them special are their well-executed Nanyang (南洋) dishes, many of which you’d typically find at neighbourhood tze char stalls.

Which is not surprising as their mothership is Famous Kitchen, which started as a tze char stall more than 40 years ago, but is now a full-fledged restaurant currently located at Sembawang Road. Famous Treasure is the fancier and centrally-located offshoot that can be found on the second floor of Capitol Piazza.

The restaurant been quite aggressive with their promotions this past year, and have been offering their signature dishes at 50% off for dine-in and takeaway. Every month features a different selection, and April included their claypot fish head curry which I’ve always wanted to try.

They’ve also started putting this very intriguing Volcano Chicken dish on their menu, which involves setting an entire chicken on fire and letting it burn down before serving it. I’m guessing some form of alcohol is involved that burns off quickly and doesn’t totally incinerate the chicken.

The Old Folks had completed their second jab of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine more than a month ago, and were feeling quite comfortable dining out again so we brought them along so that we could order more food.

Their favourite dish is the salt-baked flower crabs, one of the specialties of the restaurant that we’ve not seen served anywhere else. It was not part of the 50% off selection, but it’s something that we always ask for first. We tried to place an order, but they unfortunately didn’t have any flower crabs that day. Sad.

One thing that Famous Treasure does particularly well is their sauces, especially their fiery sambal belachan. The chilli pounded with fermented shrimp until it becomes a paste has Malay roots but is a common sight even in Chinese restaurants nowadays. It’s not only a condiment, but also doubles-up as a nice appetiser when spooned on deep-fried prawn crackers.

The other two green sauces looked similar, but the slightly greener one was a ginger and spring onion mix while the other was green chilli and onion. I don’t know which green chilli was used, but it was very spicy (maybe it was from India?) and required bites of the plum-marinated cherry tomatoes to balance out the heat.

There was no way we were not ordering the Volcano Chicken, and it was the first dish to be served. The small-ish chicken was served vertically, with a metal rod piercing uncomfortably through the body and up the throat.

Underneath was a metal plate that I assume was meant to catch any drippings from the flambé-ing process. The before and after photos are pretty boring, and look like any run-of-the-mill roasted chicken dish.

It’s the in-between shots that provide all the entertainment value. Firstly, a shot glass filled with rum is poured all over the hapless chicken, and then the entire bird is set alight. The flames initially run blue from the vapourising ethanol but they quickly turn orange as the skin starts to char.

For a couple of seconds, the entire chicken is engulfed in a flickering and mesmerising cloak of fire. You can almost feel its excruciating pain from the expression on its face, until you remember that it’s already dead.

Almost every table ordered the dish, and whenever another chicken was set ablaze, everyone in the vicinity would turn around to observe the spectacle. It sucks to be a chicken in a human-dominated world.

Except for the wings, which had some residual sweetness from the vapourised rum, the rest of the chicken tasted like, well, chicken. It was juicy though, and went quite well with the ginger/spring onion sauce.

The other must-order item at Famous Treasure is their squid with cincalok and lady’s fingers, a dish that truly lives up to the restaurant’s Nanyang tradition. Cincalok is basically fermented baby shrimp and is an acquired taste that I haven’t quite acquired.

There are two, and only two, situations that I can actually stomach it — one, as a dip for BBQ sambal stingray and two, this specific dish. It’s funky, fishy, salty and sour but magically works in this simple stir-fry. The one we had that day was lacking some spiciness, but that was easily fixed by a generous dollop of the sambal belachan.

The wok-fried live tiger prawns with home-made sauce was something we’d never tried before, but at half-price, it was a no-brainer. The dark brown viscous sauce fully coated each prawn and tasted strangely familiar. I had a few pieces, head and all, before it suddenly hit me. The flavour was exactly the same as the masala chicken from Banana Leaf Apolo!

I’m not sure if this was what the chef was going for, but the Indian-style spice profile was unmistakable and was an interesting approaching to seasoning the prawns. It wasn’t what I was expecting in a Chinese restaurant, but I really liked it.

It took a while before our claypot curry fish head arrived, giving us a breather and some time to digest. Despite ordering the small portion that contained only half a fish head, it was still quite substantial and came with a generous amount of brinjal, lady’s fingers and tau pok.

The curry was closer to a nonya creamy style vs the more watery Indian version and the fish was the meaty ang go li (sea bream), a standard choice for fish head curry. Unfortunately it tasted a bit fishy, something that the strong curry couldn’t mask, and we fed this back to our waiter.

While it was not the best fish head curry that we’ve had in Singapore, it was still quite good. After we fished out and finished all the ingredients, there was still quite a lot of the curry left and we requested for it to be dabao‘ded as it would have been a waste to simply throw it away.

The Old Folks wanted to try the pan-fried red bean pancake instead of their usual orh nee but I thought that it quite meh. Maybe I felt that way because it was encrusted with too much white sesame and I’m not a fan of sesame. Desserts are never the highlight of a Chinese meal anyway, so it wasn’t a big disappointment.

What was a disappointment though, was the fact that we didn’t get to have the salt-baked flower crabs this time round. Previously, when we were there for lunch, it was the highlight of the meal, with the cincalok squid coming in a distant second.

The taste is truly special, with the smokiness from the baking process fusing deep into the soft and sweet flesh of the crab. Given the poor meat-to-shell ratio, we usually don’t bother with flower crabs and go for their meaty Sri Lankan cousins. This is probably the only exception, and definitely well worth the extra effort to slowly pick out the precious flesh.

Last year, when the lockdown was still in effect, we ordered some to be delivered to The Old Folks because they liked it so much and a good meal would have helped them forget about the situation, at least for the duration of a meal.

So, if you’ve never been to Famous Treasure, you might want to consider paying them a visit just to try the salt-baked flower crabs. But before heading down, you might want to call ahead to confirm that they’re available, and maybe even pre-book a couple to avoid disappointment.

Oh, and remember the leftover curry that we brought home? It made for a really delicious curry beehoon, especially after the addition of some fragrant minari, the most famous vegetable this year.

(Note: This visit was made in April, before “Phase 1.5” restrictions came into effect on 16 May)

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