Behind The Food

Behind Nan Hwa Chong: The Legendary Restaurant That Invented Fish Head Steamboat

Nan Hwa Chong Fish Head Steamboat Corner is a legendary 90-year-old restaurant

Over the last Chinese New Year, there’s a good chance that many of us had fish head steamboat—such is the dish’s strong association with festivities. To get to the point where fish head steamboat is so ingrained in the traditions of many Chinese Singaporean families, however, the dish had to endure years of uncertainty and evolution with its creator, Nan Hwa Chong Fish Head Steamboat Corner.

In our recent visit to what is arguably the most well-known fish head steamboat eatery in the country, we spoke to current owner Michael Lee, 39, who shared their almost century-long history with us at length. This is a tale that began in 1927, with the arrival of a certain Ah Chew’s grandfather in Singapore, the very same Ah Chew whose name is on the restaurant’s signboards.

Ah Chew’s grandfather was one of the many Teochew immigrants who had come from mainland China looking for work. “He started to sell fish soup based on traditional wei lu (a kind of charcoal hotpot concept popular in some parts of China),” Michael began. “Fish heads were used for the soup, partly because the coolies cannot afford more expensive stuff.”

“Fish heads were used for the soup, partly because the coolies cannot afford more expensive stuff.”

Song fish, also known as bighead carp, was the fish that Ah Chew’s grandfather stuck to. He would boil the fish’s head in a large pot over charcoal fire, then pour the resulting soup into the customer’s bowl or tingkat upon order. As the dish caught on among the Teochew immigrants, his stall along Wayang Street—now known as Eu Tong Sen Street—became a magnet for long queues.

Ah Chew succeeded his grandfather in the late 1970s, a period that coincided with government regulations that saw street vendors shift to hawker centres. This was when Ah Chew began selling his dish in the individual metal pots we associate with fish head steamboat today.

Ah Chew’s dish had a profound influence on nearly all fish head steamboat eateries today. In an article by ieatishootipost, the owner of Whampoa Keng Fish Head Steamboat, another hugely popular restaurant, said that she “remembers eating this style of steamboat when she was still a kid” in the period following Nan Hwa Chong’s emergence. It is thus likely that the popularity of Ah Chew and his grandfather’s dish inspired a new generation of hawkers to specialise in fish head steamboat.

From left to right: Sally Toh, Michael Lee, Lee Hong Chuan

The incarnation of Nan Hwa Chong that we know today, however, was the result of a merger of sorts. And that’s where Michael and his family come into the picture.

In 2002, Michael’s parents, Lee Hong Chuan and Sally Toh, were running a zi char restaurant. That year also marked a low point in Nan Hwa Chong’s history, as Ah Chew had to close his business due to family issues. “After my dad found out, he told him ‘come to my zi char shop, I’ll take in your dish and your brand’. That’s when my dad started to take care of him until today,” Michael said.

Even after the merger, things were not always smooth sailing for Nan Hwa Chong. The restaurant moved locations around several times due to a lack of customers and landlord issues, before finally hitting its stride in North Bridge Road, where it remains to this day.

According to Michael, this upturn in fortunes can be attributed to crucial changes to their fish soup recipe.

“Song fish (what Ah Chew’s grandfather primarily used) is not something everyone will eat—the old Teochew people like it, but some of the younger generation can’t accept the taste,” Michael noted. This was solved by moving away from the use of song fish, although it is still an option you can get. “My mother changed it so the soup was made with pure fish bones from grouper and snapper.”

“Song fish is not something everyone will eat—the old Teochew people like it, but some of the younger generation can’t accept the taste.”

Nan Hwa Chong used to get their fish from Jurong Fishery Port to ensure optimal freshness, but in recent years have relied on suppliers to deliver them to the restaurant each morning. What hasn’t changed, however, is the insistence on boiling the fish bones and vegetables for at least three hours before serving. That, coupled with the use of charcoal fire, is what gives the fish soup its rich umami flavour.

Another change that came about as a result of the merger is Nan Hwa Chong’s transformation into a zi char restaurant. Instead of just fish head steamboat, customers can order specialities such as braised pig intestines, fried pork belly, fried tofu and more. With the absolute feast you can have at Nan Hwa Chong, it’s no wonder that fish head steamboat came to be associated with festivities.

Speaking of festivities, we wanted to know how Michael felt about all the families that visited his restaurant during the Chinese New Year period.

“It’s very heartwarming,” Michael said. “Chinese New Year is the time when people have steamboat more often than other days.”

“So seeing three, four generations of a family eating together at our restaurant, I think this is where our satisfaction really comes from.”

For a story about possibly the first ever prawn mee stall, read our The Old Stall Hokkien Street Famous Prawn Mee feature. If you’re wondering how Sichuan mala and Chongqing grilled fish got so popular in Singapore, read our mainland Chinese food feature.

Address: 812 North Bridge Road, Singapore 198779
Opening hours: Daily 11am to 12am
Tel: 8613 2732
Website
Nan Hwa Chong Fish Head Steamboat Corner is not a halal-certified eatery.

Photos taken by Melvin Mak.
This was an independent feature by Eatbook.sg.

Enze Kay

chicken, broccoli, and everything

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