Plates of Teochew-style steamed pomfret, flower crabs and fried squid arrived in quick succession soon after we settled down around the dining table. Paired with fluffy rice and bubbly chatter, it seemed like a regular night out at a Zi Char shop. That was until the wooden platform beneath us started to tremble, when a boat passed by. I was not dining on dry land, but on a wooden house on stilts, floating on the Straits of Johor, just off Pulau Ubin.
This is not a ocean-front Zi Char restaurant, but the home of the Tan Family on a Kelong, or an attap house supported on stilts in the sea. I can finally check off ‘having a Kelong dining experience’ off my wishlist during a recent dinner with five friends. The trip started with a private boat ride from Changi Point Ferry Terminal. A round trip to and fro the Kelong costs $70 per boat, so it’s best to pack at least seven people in to make it get more bang for your buck. Arrangements are made between the Kelong’s owner, Mr Tan and the boat’s operator; you just need to call Mr Tan, and he will arrange the pick-up. We chose to leave at around 5.15pm, in time to soak up the glorious sunset as we chow down.
After a surprisingly serene 10 minute ride (no choppy waters ala Robinson Crusoe’s adventures), we arrived at the Kelong, all pumped up with excitement, hunger and wide-eyed bewilderment. Being urban city-dwellers, we let out copious amounts of “oohed” and “oh! This is sooooo rustic” as soon as we stepped off the boat.
The Kelong houses living quarters equivalent the size of a four-room HDB flat, outdoor dining platform, compartments that breed a variety of seafood, from clams to flower crabs – which is on the menu.Step inside the living room area and the musty pong of damp wood hits. The sparsely-furnished home has grim-looking wooden partitions, separating the rooms, while the wooden flooring lets out creaks when stepped on. The open-concept kitchen, with two gas stoves, faces the sea and dining area, allowing the aroma of cooked food to easily waft to diners.
The Tans, who run a fish breeding business, have been living there for 28 years and they open their home for city-dwellers for a rustic dining experience. A nod to sustainable eating, which has been in the spotlight recently; most of the seafood are bred metres away from where diners happily peel the prawns and suckle from the flower crab’s pincers. Vegetables are bought from farms on mainland Singapore. There’s no fixed menu here- The Tans have an inventory list of Zi Char dishes, but if you have something else in mind, let Mr Tan know three days beforehand, to see they happen if they happen to have the ingredients. I was craving for salted egg squid that week, but had to settled for just fried squid.
The alfresco dining area is roomy enough to fit around four tables – hosting 3-4 groups of diners at one time. We opted for the one closest to sea, which immersed us with panoramic view of the sea, neighbouring Pulau Ubin, surrounding fishing kelongs…..and high-rise flats in Punggol, from a distance. Not a total respite from city life, but this is as good as it gets.
While the food’s not very outstanding from most Zi Char shops, the food here has a sublimely homely quality to it (Well, it is cooked in someone else’s home.) It feels very much like what grandma would whipped up during large gatherings with the clan. The food at this Kelong is cooked by no grandma, but the two younger Mr Tans who look in their late twenties, under the watchful eye of Mrs Tan, who splits her attention keeping an eye on the kitchen action and a soap opera on Channel 8.
The food arrived soon after we went around to snap more shots of us juxtaposed with the kelong or sunset in every possible angle. First up was the Teochew style steamed pomfret –– the succulent fish was drenched in clear slightly sweet broth. I tasted a hint of liqueur, which rid the fishiness sensation. Infusing a deeper aromatic flavour were mushrooms that hidden beneath the fish.
Next was the orange-pink flower crab, dabbed with marshmallow-white spots. These locally bred crabs sure looked smaller than their Sri Lankan counterparts. Simply stir-fried with soya bean paste sauce and dressed up with ginger and chili, the very fresh crab was sweet and fragrant. It was easy to slurp up the meat from the shells, as the crab was thoughtfully broken into smaller pieces and pincers.
Satisfying my need for deep-fried food was the butter squid, which came in swirls of golden brown crispiness and goes very well with the free flow of piping hot rice. I was very impressed with the fried prawn rolls (Hei Zho) – they were one of the tastier renditions that I had. The large golden brown parcels come chockfull with minced prawns and pork. The surprising bit was the core of prawn meat encapsulated in the parcel and how well the insides were well-studded with large chestnut bits, which made the rolls more juicy and crunchy.
Rounding up the eight-course meal were prawns, clams (which had a strange subtle gasoline aftertaste, but my dining companions begged to differ and found them delicious), and a stir-fried kai lan.
The only grouse of dining in such a rustic place is the constant need to fend houseflies off the dishes and it is no such thing as dead silence at sea – there was the roar from the electric generator to content with. Throughout the meal, I paused to savour the flavours, while feasting my eyes on the gorgeous sunset and reflections of neighbouring attap houses on the sea.
Mr Tan doesn’t sell drinks, so you have to bring your own, though they do provide ice. My tipple-happy dining companions bought a ton of wine, and we had a merry time on board. When we were three-quarters into my meal, another group of diners arrived – armed with elegant wine glasses, table cloths and exquisite alcohol that came in wooden crates that need to be pried open. It turned out that one of the diners was a local tycoon of a well-known department store in Orchard Road!
The best part of dining on this Kelong is that we could take our own sweet time to eat and chat – there was no one else waiting for us to leave in a jiffy. We could take a break from eating and explore the kelong (or take more photos) or stare into the sea and feel the briny breezes slapping on our faces.
Definitely one of the more memorable meals I had in a long time.
Price: Around $230 for a group of 6 diners, for eight dishes (excludes $70 for a private bumboat ride)
MyNoshPit paid for this meal.
Seafood Kelong Off Pulau Ubin
PM me if you want the owner’s contact number to make reservations.