Curry puff showdown

Curry puff showdown
Polar Puffs & Cakes directors Calvin Chan (left), with his cousin Jonathan Cheah. Their baked curry puff is loaded with chicken meat encased in flaky puff pastry.
PHOTO: ST

Golden, crisp, potato-filled curry puffs are a well-loved snack.

And most people have a go-to place for this baked or deep-fried snack, whether it is a hawker stall, bakery or famous chain.

It can be deep-fried or baked, and is generally filled with potato curry, chicken, onions and pieces of egg. The Malay version is known as epok epok and is smaller than most curry puffs. Potatoes are by no means the only filling either. Variations include sardine, tuna and beef rendang as well as more exotic flavours such as durian, custard and bird's nest.

To suss out the best ones, a panel of five judges ate their way through 41 curry puffs, shortlisted from popular brands and chef recommendations.

The judges are Life's food editor Tan Hsueh Yun and restaurant critic Wong Ah Yoke, as well as guest judges Violet Oon, food consultant and restaurateur; Devagi Sanmugam, cookbook author and cooking instructor; and Willin Low, chef-owner of Wild Rocket restaurant.

Two blind tasting sessions were carried out, with each judge awarding a maximum of 20 points to each curry puff - 10 points for the filling and 10 for the pastry.

Despite the perception that curry puffs made by hand would be better than those churned out by machines, the judges were surprised by the result.

And the winners are

Taking the top two places are established chains, while hawkers who have honed their craft for at least 10 years took the next three spots.

Ranked No. 1 is 89-year-old bakery chain Polar Puffs & Cakes, while second place goes to snack chain Old Chang Kee. Both make their curry puffs in central kitchens.

Handmade ones took the next three spots. Tied in third place are a Malay stall in a coffee shop in Stirling Road, and Epok Epok Central at Eunos Crescent Market & Food Centre.

Rounding off the top five is Yong Kee Lontong Crispy Curry Puff in Sembawang Hills Food Centre.

Tan says: "I am surprised and rather disappointed. I had expected the smaller stalls to win, not the big chains. But I guess Polar and Old Chang Kee have economies of scale and the know-how to keep their puffs consistent."

Sanmugam says: "I have always bought Polar if I feel like eating a curry puff as the filling and pastry are always consistent. Like Old Chang Kee, it has standard recipes and procedures and the puffs are all made in a central kitchen."

Low, a huge curry puff fan who eats it at least once a week, says: "I'm happy to see Polar at the top as I've loved its puffs for many years. The bigger players have clearly perfected how well the curry puff travels.

"However, I still stand by my artisan curry puffs. We need to support the hawkers who make their curry puffs by hand on a daily basis."

He counts Fong's Dee Curry Puff, Katong Chicken Curry Puff and Lagoon Chicken Curry Puff as his favourites.

Curry puff fans Life spoke to had mixed reactions.

Like Low, preschool teacher Carol Lim, 28, is a fan of curry puffs handmade by hawkers.

She says: "I'm glad three hawkers made it into the top five, especially Epok Epok Central. I've tried making curry puffs and it's tough to ensure that the dough and filling are just right. I'll definitely try the other outlets that were part of the taste test, some of which I've never heard of.

"Personally, I like my curry puffs deep-fried, so I'm not a fan of Polar's baked ones."

For financial consultant Liu Wei Ming, 43, convenience is key.

He says: "I'm not really particular about which brand of curry puffs I eat because I normally go for the most convenient option, whether it is a stall in a hawker centre or kiosk in a shopping mall. But I've never had a bad curry puff from either Polar or Old Chang Kee, so I guess that's why they made it into the top two."

•What do you think of the results of our curry puff test? E-mail your responses to stlife@sph.com.sg.

No. 1: Polar Puffs & Cakes

Where: Twenty-nine outlets, including at Bugis Junction, Jurong Point, Causeway Point, and Bedok Mall, various opening hours

Info: polarpuffs-cakes.com

Verdict: There was a unanimous chorus of approval from the judges praising the filling as well as the baked pastry. Sanmugam likes the generous filling of chicken and onion, while Tan enjoys the "well-fried rempah and flaky pastry". Low adds: "It's a curry puff that I just want to eat another bite of."

Score: 75/100

What started in 1926 as a popular eating place selling pastries and ice cream in High Street - MPs and lawyers were patrons - still retains its winning formula for curry puffs today.

While curry puffs are generally filled with potatoes and eggs, the baked ones from Polar Puffs & Cakes are loaded with chicken meat encased in flaky puff pastry.

More than two million curry puffs are produced for sale every year across its retail stores and at selected petrol stations and convenience stores, says a Polar spokesman.

It was founded by the late Chan Hinky, a Hong Kong immigrant who came to Singapore with plans to open a cafe. His eldest son Chan Cheong Hin continued the business until the 1970s, before handing it over to his brother Chan Yoke Onn.

Mr Chan then continued the business until the High Street premises were acquired in 1986 to make way for the current Parliament House.

Polar started its first takeaway outlet at the former OUB Centre in Raffles Place. It also started operating a small factory in Thye Hong Centre in Redhill to produce puffs and cakes.

In the 1990s, the business expanded to multiple outlets and petrol stations across Singapore. The company, pioneers in the Yellow Ribbon Project to give second chances to former offenders, has been getting its pastries made by inmates in prison since 2004.

In a temperature-controlled environment, the curry puffs are transported to its factory in Woodlands for the baking process. About 600 puffs are baked at a go, before being dispatched to the various outlets .

The curry puff - with an Asian filling of curry chicken and a French-style pastry - requires 81 folds of the raw dough to achieve its layers.

Other popular items include sugar rolls, chicken pies and cakes.

The business is now run by a team of executives as well as a board of directors which include thirdgeneration family members.

The Polar spokesman says it is franchising the business overseas as well as setting up an e-commerce portal later this year.

Acknowledging its roots in the colonial days, she says: "This East meets West fusion creation was anchored in history; synonymous with the creation of Singapore as an English Commonwealth colony in the Far East.

"This heritage product has stood the test of time, from when production was done entirely by hand to being done by automation."

It does not surprise housewife Janet Lee, 54, that Polar took the top spot as she has been a long-time fan of its baked puffs.

She says: "I prefer the flaky baked crust to the usual deep-fried pastry, which can be very oily. There's quite a bit of meat in the filling as well. My three children like it, along with their other puff items."

No. 2: Old Chang Kee

Where: More than 80 outlets, including at Paragon Shopping Centre, AMK Hub, VivoCity and West Mall, various opening hours

Info: www.oldchangkee.com

Verdict: Another round of unanimous approval from the judges for the curry puffs, which they noted have a generous amount of chicken in the filling. Sanmugam says: "I like that the potatoes are well-cooked, but still in cubes - not just mashed up."

Score: 71/100

It is one of the remaining curry puff businesses that took off at Rex Cinemas along Mackenzie Road, and Old Chang Kee has come a long way since it opened in 1956.

Now, the production of its curry puffs works like a well-oiled machine - from the automated manufacturing process for its pastry dough and filling to its temperature-controlled environment for delivery of the chilled puffs to its various outlets, where they are fried on site.

It is this stringent process that ensures the consistency of the puffs. Although the making of the filling and pastry are automated, the puffs are still hand-crimped - there must be a minimum of 12 folds to seal each puff.

The filling is made with a mix of potatoes from Indonesia and China, as well as chicken and egg.

As for the pastry, Old Chang Kee's chairman Han Keen Juan, 64, emphasises that extensive research has gone into ensuring that it is not oil-logged after frying.

He says: "The pastry cannot be like a sponge and soak up all the oil, but it has to be puffy enough. No one wants to bite into an oil-filled curry puff."

Founded by Hainanese immigrant Chang Chuan Boo, Old Chang Kee began as a stall in Koek Road before moving to Albert Street. It gained fame when a second outlet opened in Mackenzie Road.

When Mr Chang retired from the business in 1986 to return to China, Mr Han - who met him through the Hainanese Association - bought the stall for $30,000.

He has since transformed it into a listed company that made $5.3 million in profits last year.

Despite rumours that the puffs are made in Thailand, they are in fact made in a 20,000 sq ft factory in Woodlands. By next year, the production space would have doubled as the company has acquired a neighbouring factory to expand its manufacturing facilities.

It also has a factory in Malaysia to cater to the outlets there, as well as a network of local and overseas business partners to process seafood items, including crab claws and sotong balls.

Also in the business is Mr Han's nephew, Old Chang Kee's chief executive officer William Lim, 55, who joined the company in 1995.

The company also owns other subsidiary brands such as Pie Kia, which sells pies; fast-food cafe concept Take 5; and casual restaurant chain Curry Times.

On the universal appeal of curry puffs, Mr Han says: "Curry puffs are a snack that can be eaten by all, regardless of race or religion. For our young customers, we always try to create new flavours, such as chilli crab, and chicken and mushroom."

Engineer Dylan Lim, 35, says: "When I think of curry puffs, I always think of Old Chang Kee. The puffs are a good size, not too small like other curry puffs. I like that there is egg inside as well. It helps that it has so many outlets. It's hard for me to walk by its outlets and not buy at least one."

No. 3: Epok Epok Central

Where: Eunos Crescent Market & Food Centre, Block 4A Eunos Crescent, 01-09, open: 7am to 7pm (Tuesday to Friday), 7am to 4pm (weekend), closed on Monday. The stall is likely to close a few days before Hari Raya Puasa

Verdict: While the epok epok's small size does not look enticing, the judges are won over by how good the filling and crisp pastry are. Oon says: "The old-fashioned fried pastry is paired with a tasty filling that gets its sweetness from onions." Low adds: "The taste that stays with you is from the pastry, not the filling."

Score: 69/100

This stall started out as a pushcart selling epok epok in Geylang almost 30 years ago.

And when the Eunos Crescent Market & Food Centre was built to legalise the hawker trade, Madam Bayah Ahmad, 78, was one of the pioneer stalls there.

Now it is her son Lokman Kassim, 42, who helps to run the stall.

The eighth of 10 children, Mr Lokman has honed his craft since his childhood, when he helped his mother make curry puffs by hand at the stall.

It specialises in epok epok, or Malay-style curry puffs, small, deep-fried pastries filled with potatoes or sardines. Besides epok epok, the stall also sells nasi lemak.

On what makes his puffs crispy, Mr Lokman says: "The dough has to be rolled thin and we have to make sure the curry puffs are cooked at the right temperature. If the oil is too hot, the dough will be crispy, but the filling is uncooked."

While the recipe has stayed the same over the years, he does not rule out creating new flavours for younger customers.

He says: "We would love to try using mushroom or chicken in our epok epok. But with the high demand, there's no time to try.

"And if we have the capacity, I wouldn't mind opening another outlet."

Civil servant Nurul Aini, 32, who goes to Epok Epok Central at least once a month, says: "I normally buy at least five epok epok at a time. It is small enough to eat a few at a go, and I like that the filling has a lot of onions."

No. 5: Yong Kee Lontong Crispy Curry Puff

Where: Sembawang Hills Food Centre, 590 Upper Thomson Road, 01-02, open: 7am to 3pm (Tuesday to Sunday), closed on Monday

Info: Call 9842-6019 or 9798-3571

Verdict: Even though the filling does not include chicken, the judges enjoy its spicy notes. Oon says: "The filling has a good chilli flavour that is not masked by anything else."Wong adds that the potatoes are not overcooked and have a bite to them.

Score: 67/100

The strategic move to sell curry puffs 12 years ago has paid off for husband-and-wife duo Lim Meng Kuang, 60, and Lee Ley Yong, 59.

Mr Lim, a former kway teow seller looking to sell something different, decided to bank on his wife's winning recipe.

He says in Mandarin: "She is good at making dim sum items as well as curry puffs for family and friends. Since she's good at it,whynot?"

The duo start preparing their made-to-order curry puffs from 5am and continue making them throughout the day, depending on demandor pre-orders.

He estimates that they sell about 300 curry puffs a day. The couple also sell Teochew style yam mooncakes and lontong.

On being ranked in the top five, Mr Lim says: "Wow, it makes me very happy that we are ranked together with Old Chang Kee. I do think there are a lot of other good curry puffs out there, made by both the small and big brands."

Unlike others, however, expansion is not in the cards for them.

Madam Lee says: "It is just nice to have two of us making the curry puffs at our stall. We can cope with the demand. If we expand, we might not be able to handle it and the quality will drop."

Marketing executive Alice Wong, 30, who goes to the food centre for lunch, says: "I like that the curry puff is quite spicy. I buy it for tea break after having lunch at the food centre. My colleagues like it too, so we'll buy at least 10."

Worst of the lot

A slew of issues plague the curry puffs that rank the lowest in the blind taste tests.

Oon's main gripe is that the potato curry in many of the curry puffs is not cooked properly, resulting in undercooked spice paste that tastes raw.

Agreeing, Tan says: "I was floored by how many bad ones there were. The worst mistake is not frying the spice paste until the flavours meld properly. It results in jarring notes in the filling that can be really unpleasant.

"Even my favourite curry puff, AMK Curry Puff, did not stand a chance. This was a humbling lesson."

Other issues that Wong points out includes undercooked dough, and fillings that are either too sweet or not spicy at all. Some curry puffs, he adds, have barely any filling.

The bottom five are Hassan Stall (Changi Village Food Centre, 2 Changi Village Road, 01-29), Balmoral Bakery (105 Clementi Street 12), Dough Culture (six outlets including Causeway Point, Changi City Point, and Nex), Baker's Oven Patisseries (15 Woodlands Loop) and Mary's Kafe (Kum Yan Methodist Church, 1 Queen Street).

Sanmugam, who notices that some curry puffs have a rancid taste because the oil used to fry them has been reused too many times, says: "Using the same oil again and again spoils the taste of a curry puff and many don't seem to know the right temperature. Others roll the pastry too thick, but don't seem to know how long they should fry the pastry so that it is cooked through.

"I feel that the standard of curry puffs has gone down."

 


This article was first published on July 05, 2015.
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