A walk down memory lane, the first thing that greeted you at Lai Wah Restaurant is this beautiful mural by local artist Yip Yew Cheong, and staff that has worked here over 50 years.
Famous for being the birthplace of yu sheng (raw fish salad), a must-have at Chinese New Year celebratory meals in Singapore, Lai Wah Restaurant was opened in 1963 at Jalan Besar by Wong Kok Lum together with two of the four culinary Heavenly Kings, Tham Yui Kai 谭锐佳 and Lau Yok Pui 刘育培. They moved to the current location in 1967 at Bendemeer. Tham went on to improved the Singapore Chilli Crab recipe (and left for Dragon Phoenix restaurant) and Lau (later at Red Star).
Today, the no-frills spot is operated by the descendants of Wong, and besides yu sheng, other must-tries invented at the restaurant include the yam pot with cashews and prawns 佛钵豌豆虾仁, and eight treasures duck 八宝鸭.
Signature Cold Platter 丽华拼盘
The traditional banquet always starts with a cold platter. 冷盘 Cold platter was the old name given to an appetiser platter. It was usually made up of precooked items that would be assembled before a banquet began.
Unlike the cold platter of the West, where it is usually chilled seafood, the Lai Wah signature “cold platter” is made up of a compilation of their best hot appetisers.
Chilled prawn with mayonnaise 鲜虾沙拉 | Jellyfish salad 凉拌海蜇 | Century egg 皮蛋
These two items were a common sight during the 60/70s. The chilled tiger prawns were cooked to death and sliced to give maximum mileage – 5 prawns for 10 people. The old school Cantonese mayonnaise has been replaced with ready made Kewpie mayonnaise in this case. And the shredded jellyfish mixed with Maggi chilli sauce may not sound like a restaurant dish, but it was standard to see this in banquets. And whole century egg thrown for good measure, but absolute not knowing why it was there.
Shark fin omelete 桂花翅
As Singapore enters into WWF agreement to protect and ban trading of shark’s fins, this item has made an adjustment. Instead of shark’s fin, tung hoon (rice vermicelli) was used here, and it was not an equivalent replacement. Because of the wet nature of soaked tung hoon, the omelette needed more heat to dry up making overcooked.
Home made crab rolls 自制蟹肉枣
This has been my childhood favourite. It has the familiar taste of my mother’s Teochew ngoh hiang (meat roll), but with an additional ingredient of crab meat.
Deep fried bean curd skin 黄金腐皮卷
This was the other familiar appetiser from my childhood. A beancurd skin was filled with minced prawn. It is then wrapped like a wallet and then deep fried to a crisp. In my memory, I did not recall the mushroom, But it was totally unnecessary with the umami of the prawn and crispiness of the beancurd skin holding the fort.
Eight Treasure Celestial Duck 八宝鸭
八宝鸭 Eight Treasure Celestial Duck is one of the two signatures that made Lai Wah famous in the first place. This Cantonese dish, traditionally served on Chinese New Year’s Eve, consists of a duck, fried and then steamed, stuffed with a collection of eight delicious ingredients, or “treasures”.
By braising the whole duck, it ensures that you get succulent tender meat and the “eight treasures” used – lotus seeds, mushrooms, conpoy, chestnuts, water chestnuts, abalone, red dates – give this dish an intense fragrance to the braising sauce. But it didn’t come up right.
I was surprised it came up with so much sauce and really overpowering smell of five spices. While the duck was folk-tender and the filling of the duck was delicious, the sauce spoiled the party. I have to resort to eating a dry duck.
Golden Cage Chicken 金笼鸡
The chicken skin is carefully taken out and air-dried so that it becomes crispy to a golden brown when deep fried. Squid and prawns are freshly minced into a paste that is spread under the chicken skin. This skin-paste creation is deep-fried while the chicken meat is stir-fried with water chestnuts.
It was the familiar taste from long time ago. Many traditional restaurants have stopped serving this dish because of the multiple steps required to get this chicken dish right.
Sautéed Venison with Ginger and Spring Onions 姜葱鹿肉
My dad would order this whenever we came to Lai Wah, and in the past it was served on a heated cast iron plate.
It was still as good as ever, the wok hei, the soft and tender venison cooked to perfection. Princess loved this as much as her grandfather – the taste buds have skipped a generation.
Sautéed Royale Chives 清炒青龙菜
青龙菜 Royale chives is native of Cameron Highlands that has been cultivated from the Tarragon plant. It is like a chives, but not as strong tasting and has become a favourite in restaurants in recent years because they are hardier that chives, especially the yellow ones.
It is a strong tasting vegetable, so it just need to be sautéed, no garlic needed. It loses its own water very quickly so you need a very hot wok and quick stir-fry.
Signature Yam Pot with Cashews and Shrimps 佛钵豌豆虾仁
You probably are very familiar with the yam ring 藕圈 which is an ubiquitous dish at any Chinese tzechar. It was invented by Chef Lau here at Lai Wah.
There’s many things in the yam pot- shrimps, water chestnuts, cashews, baby corn, sweet pepper, carrots, lily bulb (and in the part they also put in sweet peas). That’s why it’s called the Buddhist monks’ alms pot – there’s everything in the pot.
However, it was not as saucy as the ones from the other tzechar store. You can taste the crispy of the yam pot as well as the tastes of the individual ingredients.
They have since expanded the premises, and the signboard was replaced with a more modern acrylic one. I still missed the old Cantonese restaurant red-and-white painted signboard that was featured in the mural. Some of the original taste still remain – the current head chef has been working for Lau and Tham for years and learnt all their recipes.
The restaurant caters to the HDB heartland and the price was considered wallet friendly. The staff needed training though; except for a few old-timers, the rest (many Chinese mainlanders) were not really tuned to local Chinese food. I hope they can survive any half century, but definitely some improvements required with the shifting taste of the modern consumers.
Lai Wah Restaurant 麗華酒家
44 Bendemeer Rd, #01-1436, Singapore 330044
Date visited : Feb 2022