Photo: The Straits Times
Don’t mess with our curry puffs.
My love for this fried pastry is so real, I went through a phase of eating them everyday for breakfast. My waistline did not thank me. So when I heard that national treasure (yes, I said it) Old Chang Kee had opened an outlet in London early this summer, I had mixed feelings.
To give some context, I lived in the UK for four years and consumed many a English pasty. I have also dismissed many attempts to produce so-called Asian food (no, for the last time, Singapore noodles are not a thing). Could the new curry puff stay true to its humble $1.20 roots, or would it be lost in translation?
I wasn’t surprised at the curry puff’s appearance in Britain, considering their love for savoury filled pastries. A British friend who flew to visit me in Singapore proclaimed that the Old Chang Kee was the best food she sampled here (me: “I bring you to all the hawker centres and amazing restaurants and you think the curry puff is the best??”), and her enthusiasm actually fuelled several attempts to make them when she returned home. Hashtag: when your angmoh friend is more Singaporean than you.
So when I was in London this summer for a friend’s wedding, the opportunity to try a puff was too good to pass up. I roped in another curry puff aficionado to come with me – a friend who lived in Singapore for years before migrating to native Norway. We would know an OG curry puff from an imposter pastry.
The store itself was conveniently located in Covent Garden and easy enough to find with it’s pale yellow signboard. Purists might say it’s not quite as bold a yellow as the original signage back home, but we weren’t fussed. The interior is a small café with a takeaway counter, with all the puffs lined up in display in a glass counter.
Photo: Instagram/ @oldchangkeelondon
There are a handful of tables for you to eat on the premises, and there was a concerted effort to inject local elements into the décor – there were mooncake moulds hanging on the walls, signs educating customers what ‘shiok’ means, and tiffin carriers.
I was so eager to take a bite I was remiss in capturing initial proof of said flatness.
As for the puffs themselves, they did not make a positive visual first impression. “Why are they so… flattened??” I asked my friend, indignantly. Unlike the small, plump versions with oversized frills that we’re accustomed to seeing, the British incarnations are curiously semi-oval, with modest pleats and decidedly larger. They’re also priced at a hefty $5, but to be fair, food in London is priced more steeply and this puff was almost twice the usual size.
But the proof is in the pastry. And in this case, the pastry left me confused. It definitely was a curry puff, and not a bad one at that.
But did I think it was a proud, card-carrying member of the Old Chang Kee clan? Not quite.
Because the crust was significantly thinner than the buttery pastry I remembered, the ratio between the pastry and the filling felt imbalanced. The chunky interior of the SG puffs made for a moreish filling that had a distinct mouthfeel of curry chicken, potato and egg.
The British counterpart had the same ingredients, but they were in much smaller cubes and the taste was almost homogenous. “It doesn’t have the same bite that I like in curry puffs,” mourned my friend, remarking that the distinct flavour profile of the typical puffs was absent. Alas.
The original puff (left) has a more sturdy, buttery crust while the British puffs (right) have a thinner, more flaky exterior.
But let’s get this straight – this curry puff was created for a different demographic. I get it. It’s a love child between what we know and what a new audience might want. And to be fair, in the 30 minutes we spent in the café, there was a steady stream of customers considering it was an off-peak afternoon (and surprisingly, I’d say only half were Asian). We overheard curious customers ask about business, with the staff behind the counter chirping that sales has been brisk. The shop also sells other local favourites like nasi lemak, laksa and chicken curry, albeit at the eye-popping price of $15.
Photo: Instagram/ @oldchangkeelondon
I concede that I’m a bit precious about my curry puffs – when you grow up eating a childhood snack, you get a bit Smeagol-esque about what’s done to it (come on, I’m sure it’s not just me?).
And while I wouldn’t pay another $5 for a puff, if I was a Singaporean living in London, I might cave just for the fix. But hey – anything that flies the flag for local cuisine should get some praise.
Asian food isn’t all about greasy spring rolls and fried rice, and Singaporean cuisine isn’t Singapore noodles (#petpeeve). And if a cheerful yellow takeaway in the heart of London is taking a step to making this known, this new rendition could just be the first step forward.