Ever had hawker food with cognac?
Chances are you might not have. Every time we ask our friends this question, we hear a whole pack of reasons why it can’t work. For a long time, we even believed it.
Then, of course, we actually tried making hawker food work with cognac.
Stoking the Fire
It all started when our friends at Rémy Martin asked us out for a meal. We were told that there would be pairing of food and cognac (naturally). Being who we are, we missed some important details (conveniently, they were in bold). The most important one being the location.
The big day came and we read the details of the invitation. We were quite shocked and annoyed to discover that we were headed to Old Airport Road Food Centre. Shocked because we never thought that we’d be pairing cognac with local cuisine. Annoyed because we had already dressed up, coat and all. Mea Culpa.
An hour later, we arrived at the food centre and found some placemats neatly laid out, labelled with the various Rémy cognacs. We were familiar with the range. The VS would of course be the lightest, the flagship VSOP would be a complex blend of vanilla and floral scents, the Club would be rich with spice and oak, and the XO would be fruity, light, and elegant.
Regardless of age, Rémy has a style which could best be described as fruity, harmonious and almost ethereal.
So how on earth would they work with the char heavy, intensely flavoured hawker food that we love so much?
Well, that brings us to…
#1: Char Kway Teow and VSOP and Soda
Char Kway Teow is the quintessential Singaporean hawker food. After chicken rice, that is. We’re familiar with the dish, but we’re accustomed to washing it down with beer- quite literally in some cases. Rémy’s VSOP is quite a strange beast. It has a very bright and fruity palate, with spices, nuts, vanilla and fruit.
Some of these work well with the violently fried noodle dish, The fruitiness helps to cut through the intense greasiness and in this case, heavy sweetness from the sweet soy sauce. The nuts and spice are a nice touch, for they complement the wok hei– the signature charred, caramelised aroma from putting noodles to the extreme heat of the wok.
The soda was an inspired choice by our friends. It lengthens the drink, helps to reduce the strength, and helps to counteract any lingering grease from the noodles.
#2: Roast Duck and Club
You might not be surprised to see duck on the menu. The fowl is commonly paired with fruit and wine, and cognac happens to be distilled wine that usually tastes of fruit. Our local version is roasted with a large amount of spice, which kills delicate flavours like elephants trampling a field of pansies.
The Club, which was created for the Chinese palate, has a rich, spicy backbone. That spiciness mingles well with the roast duck’s own, and the plum and raisin flavours help to accentuate the flavour of the duck. You can use any cognac with strong flavours and a decent amount of aging, which isn’t necessarily the oldest cognac – a robust VSOP might actually work better.
#3: Orh Luah (Oyster Omelette) and Frozen VS
Now, frozen VS doesn’t mean a popsicle or a slushie, only cognac that has been put in the freezer and chilled till ice-cold. At low temperatures, the texture of alcohol thickens, the burning sensation vanishes, and the flavours change. The fruity notes of the VS are accentuated, and a savoury, maritime note unexpectedly emerges. That is of course, perfect with the fried oysters.
That was the end of our journey with the Rémy folks, but we felt that there was much more to local food. So we dragged ourselves down to another of Singapore’s famous food havens, the Tiong Bahru market.
#4: Wanton Mee, Char Siew and XO
Tiong Bahru market is home to some very famous food stalls; an exhaustive catalogue exists on the internet. Even then, we still have our favourite: Zhong Yu Wanton Noodles. A snaking queue emerges long before lunchtime, and one can expect to spend forty minutes in the queue even in the off-peak periods. When one finally reaches the head of the line, one is inevitably “greeted” by the infamously surly stall assistant. Still, we find that the food is worth the pain, even for non-masochists.
A perfect bowl of wanton noodles possesses the trifecta: springy noodles, plump, thin-skinned wantons (prawn dumplings) and sweet, juicy char siew (bbq pork). No stall we know of has ever aced all three, but Zhong Yu does the pork particularly well. Roasted in the traditional “Apollo” oven, their char siew has a charred brownish crust which is honeyed, savoury and pleasantly smoky, while the meat inside melts in the mouth. Should one be lucky enough to obtain the “bu jian tian” (literally, never seen the sky) cut, which comes from the pig’s “armpit”, then this tenderness ascends into silky Valhalla.
Why mention char siew in such detail? It is the perfect accompaniment, in our opinion, to neat-served XO. When taken at the same time, they meld in the mouth like twining vines, inseparable and almost indistinguishable. The fruity sweetness of the XO melts into the honeyed meat, infusing its fibres and lending it a lightness, while the smoky flavour of the pork adds depth and definition to the XO. So transcendent is the experience that it seems almost futile to describe it. Oh, and the cognac also works well with prawns and seafood.
#5: Kway Chap and Club
Kway Chap is a guilty pleasure for us. Pig innards, braised pork, and braised duck paired with kway (dough sheets) in a surprisingly light broth. In many ways, this is the ultimate braised dish. Cooked properly, the braised meats retain their natural flavours, but take on soy umami and the mild spiciness of anise, cloves and cassia bark.
All in all, the perfect match to the spicy Club, wouldn’t you say? The game and the spice both work well with the strong flavours of the cognac. We think that this combination works even better than roast duck.
What was surprising was how the kway broth also worked magically with the spirit, even with no dilution. The savoury flavours are complemented by the sweetness of the cognac. Adding the Club directly to the broth was fine, but we think drinking it straight from the glass reduces the dilution and gives a stronger punch.
#6: Nyonya Kueh and VSOP
To finish off, we find that some dessert is in order. We’ve already played with the fruity and spicy flavours of cognac, but there are two elements that are practically begging to be let out: the floral and vanilla flavours in the VSOP. Well, if there’s anything that goes well with vanilla and flowers, it’s coconut. Which happens to be a main ingredient of traditional nyonya kueh.
The other traditional component, the gula melaka, has a nice caramelised, dark sugar flavour that works quite well with the raisin and fruit components of the VSOP.
With the major components in harmony, we are quite fond of this pairing. A word of caution: not all kueh is made the same, and some are far too sweet, possibly overwhelming the spirit. We liked HariAnns.
Bonus Section: Some Tips
Well, cognac turns out to be pretty versatile as a pairing for local food, contrary to what the naysayers would have you believe. We hope you’re inspired to go try some of these pairings (or your own!).
We have a few quick tips for would be hawker-cognac explorers:
- It’s cumbersome to bring along a whole bottle of spirit. You use a hip flask or a coffee tumbler- the latter is good for eating incognito. Alternatively, look for miniatures.
- To get the full aroma of the spirit, a short, tulip shaped glass is best. A Glencairn whisky glass is quite compact and will work well. You can also get a small plastic cup (and ice) from drink stalls. Not as good, though
- Skip the chilli. We love spicy, tongue numbing tastes as much as most Singaporeans, but its pretty hard to taste anything else when the chilli takes control of the palate.
- If you want to bring frozen cognac out, wrap it in paper and put it in a chiller bag. Doing the reverse- dabao-ing food and drinking the cognac at home compromises the hot food.
- Pairing is a matter of balancing texture and flavour. If you’re finding that either is too much in the cognac, you can try adding ginger ale or soda to the spirit to dilute them.
If you’re interested in getting any of the cognacs we’ve talked about above, you can try AsherBWS or 75cl. Alternatively, see if you can pick them up at duty-free (when you’ll probably be pining for a good char kway teow).