A Zhi Char stall always have to churn out a huge variety of a la carte dishes, in the shortest time, and the whole process of cooking and frying always seem so time-consuming.
There are sometimes hundreds of choices on the menu, and a popular zhi char stall can dish out tasty, hot, and fresh food items in minutes. With the Labour Movement pushing for competitiveness and productivity, some zhi char stalls could be real life examples of how to do it cheaper than restaurants, better than hotels and faster than food deliveries.
Plus, customers would always want to try new varieties of zhi char food. I love all these experiments that the stalls are taking, whether it is East meets West, or when strange impossible items are added to already familiar-tasting dishes. Otherwise, there won’t be the birth of Coffee Pork Ribs, Wasabi Prawns, Mango Chicken, XO Fish Soup, and Laksa Crabs – some have become ‘staples’ in many stalls.
I made my way to One Ocean Seafood, located at Toa Payoh Industrial Park near Braddell. Yes it is ulu, but still enjoys relatively brisk businesses even on weekday nights. (It is related to other Ocean zhi char stalls you see around.)
We had the Salted Egg Golden Flake Prawns ($25) and Golden Mashed Potato Roll ($12), both with mashed potato in their ingredients.
Some would think that the prawn dish was the usual cereal prawn because the base was still crispy and flaky. Actually no! The ‘golden flake’ is prepared by a mashed potato mix and salted egg, which brings a twist to the dish.
I would never have expected that the deep fried Mashed Potato Roll was made by that same instant mashed potato mix. If you are thinking it is the same version you can buy in supermarkets – not really. Chef Yap from Ocean uses the industry pack catered for large scale cooking which is still made by sustainably grown real potatoes from Germany.
The benefits? He can add the potatoes for some ‘Western’ slant to the usual Asian dishes, which customers would appreciate the novelty, and the dish would have a consistent quality and taste every time.
This would be ideal for speed, especially when washing, cooking, peeling and mashing potatoes would take up too much time, increasing the risk of kitchen accidents in the rush to meet the deadline of dinner crowd arriving, and using up precious space in the fridge. By making food preparation “easier, smarter and safer”, as labour chief Lim Swee Say calls it, the chefs can focus on making creative dishes that would keep diners coming back.
Taking about Western twists, there is an unusual Italiana Scallop ($18) with has fresh plump scallops fried with wok hei, yet you can taste a hint of Italian herbs. This feels like having scallop pasta sans the pasta. Using these these herbs not only spruce out the original taste of the scallop, the dish can be prepared quickly as the herbs are already pre-packed.
Chef Yap also stretches the use of each ingredient. This Italian herb could be found in some of his other cooked dishes, helping to lower food cost minimise wastage.
When it comes to frying some Chinese cuisines such as vegetables, most Chinese chefs would need to use soup stock as a base. However, preparation of such stock can take up to 8 hours as there is a need to prepare the ingredients for making the stock, blanch, rinse and boil the meat with other ingredients for hours.
Ocean’s Seafood Spinach with Scallop Broth ($18) uses concentrated scallop bouillon as its base, which makes an otherwise ordinary vegetable dish have a lingering of rich seafood aftertaste.
Some tips I learnt from the zhi char stall on how they work easier, smarter and safer:
– The same ingredient is featured in a variety of dishes to minimise wastage.
– A zhi char stall does not need to be too fixed in its menu – to use what is in season and experiment to allow more flexibility and innovation in dishes.
– Food is highly perishable and by proper planning, chefs can avoid overstocking or overbuying (and thus saving kitchen space.)
– It is okay to use mixes as long as the quality is consistent. This saves on preparation time and reduces unnecessary movement in the kitchen which is a common cause of kitchen accidents.
– Prices can be lowered as chefs save on food and recipe cost, and in turn focus on creating the dishes.
Some may argue that everything needs to be prepared from scratch. What is your take on this?
One Ocean Seafood Restaurant
1002 Toa Payoh Industrial Park #01-1407, Singapore 319074
Opening Hours: 11am-2:30pm, 5:30pm – 11pm (Daily)
Ocean Seafood Woodlands Blk 892C Woodland Drive 50 #01-02 S(730892)
Ocean Seafood AMK Blk 107, Ang Mo Kio Ave 4, S(560107)
Ocean Seafood Serangoon Blk 151 Serangoon North Ave 2 S(550151)
Ocean Seafood Hougang Blk 435A Hougang Avenue 8, S(530435)