You know when you walk into a restaurant not expecting much at all, and then taste something so glorious that you choke on your own pleasure? Maybe even shed a tear? Ah, that feeling, it is what I live for.
It is weird because the food itself may not necessarily be all that good, it’s just that the exact piece you put into your mouth is perfect for that very moment.
To capture this instance is not as simple as it seems. You might assert that anyone who craves and has their craving satisfied, experiences a form of this bliss, but I think it is a little more complicated than that. Perhaps, indeed, I am creating an aura of magic and mysticism around something that might be easily explained, but perhaps not. Even while writing this, I am cognisant of the fact that the dry chicken curry I had at Old Chang Kee is probably not even in the top fifty best dishes I’ve eaten, but I would be liar to say that I did not enjoy it just as much as any of them.
I was sent there by my employer, Daniel, who is Singaporean and grew up eating curry puffs and lobster balls from one of the Kee’s near him. Since they opened in London only recently, he implored me to visit, if only to understand the excitement and fondness with which he spoke. From preliminary reconnaissance, the place did not seem like the kind I’d visit, but if Daniel felt so strongly about it then there must be something special about their food.
So I went, a fine summer’s morning it was, despite being tempted instead to visit the XU tea house I’ve been meaning to review for a while. Covent Garden is a nice area, roads with a wider berth, street performers at their peak season best, a whirl of magicians, dancers, singers and the odd weirdo. A man sat in the corner of the street ahead singing something into a traffic cone. He lifted his head out of it, realised it wasn’t quite right, then turned it around and started singing into the small end, now loud and clearer. His eyes lit up as he suddenly noticed people paying attention to him. He began singing the classic ‘Always look on the Brightside of life’ over and over in an endless loop, creating an epidemic of resonant repetition in the heads of everyone who heard him. It took me an hour or so to get rid of the tune myself.
Old Chang Kee is small, inconspicuous, and quite easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it. They had only just opened for lunch when I arrived, all the staff bracing themselves for the afternoon rush. The seating up top, for there is a downstairs, is quite haphazard in form and rather crammed. Finding myself a seat on a stool required some inconvenient shimmying and bum shuffles. The shade of yellow, a garish highlighter shade of yellow, or more akin to that of hydrated yet stale urine, is not the most attractive of visages both inside the restaurant and without. But then I suppose they are more a takeaway than an actual restaurant, and after having tried their cooking, I find all this easy to forgive.
After retrieving all I’d ordered from the counter – there is no table service – I laid out all my food in preparation for a ceremonial devouring. I first bit into the curry puff, crunchy thick-edged pastry giving way to a soft, hot filling of an effusively aromatic melange. Potatoes melt into tiny nuggets of chicken, touched with garlic and chilli powder with the identifiable embrace of curry leaves. I had mine with egg inside, which seemed odd at first (egg in pasty? hmm), but turned out better than expected. They are delightful, though I must admit that if I was to go back it would be for something else.
The Old Chang Kee dry chicken curry: similarly spiced to the curry puff but with succulent pieces of chicken, bigger pieces, that came with measured abundance alongside some well-cooked rice. Incredibly simple yet utterly delicious for the same price you would pay for a curry at Wasabi. This dry chicken curry is the bee’s knees people, a piece of street food heaven that I haven’t come across in some time now. It made me eat with a kind of weird intoxication, the kind where even after you’ve eaten everything on your plate, you still find yourself searching for a hidden morsel, or scraping single grains of rice out of the pot. I thoroughly enjoyed the dish and will go back for it.
I gave the lobster balls and the crispy chicken on sticks a go on my way out, but they were not particularly items worth writing about. Nothing special here, the same kind of thing you’d find most places where proteins are simply cooked in batter for cheap. The carried with them the street food thematic, and they do work well with the curries as accompaniments.
It is unsurprising why Old Chang Kee have gained such a following around the world. I am more surprised that it has taken them so long to have found a place in Europe, in London. In any case, they are here now, drawing in crowds by the hundreds, so be sure to go early and grab yourself anything that takes your fancy. They’ve got all the Singaporean street food all-stars, each designed categorically to please.
Location: 15 New Row, London WC2N 4LD