Few chefs in New York have been advocates for Southeast Asian fare longer than Simpson Wong. Since opening Cafe Asean in the West Village in 1996, chef Wong has represented the flavors of his native Malaysia and beyond. His most recent restaurant, Chomp Chomp, celebrates the hawker food of Singapore; we talked with the chef about his experience in New York and what inspired his most recent opening.
When did you first open Cafe Asean, and how has the neighborhood changed since then? It’s been almost 20 years now since I first opened Cafe Asean. I think the neighborhood has definitely evolved, and there are more restaurants in the area. A lot of customers who grew up with Cafe Asean I continue to see at Cafe Asean and have also started to frequent Chomp Chomp as well.
I think the neighborhood has such great character and lots of history. Our customers span a wide range from a lot of folks who have traveled to Asia and know the food culture, plus a younger set who are very adventurous and are keen to try different kinds of cuisine.
Chomp Chomp specializes in Singaporean-style street food. Can you tell us about your personal connection with this style of cooking? Well, I grew up in a small town in Malaysia called Tanjung Malim, and Malaysia and Singapore are destinations that offer amazing hawker food or street food. I grew up learning how to cook traditional Malaysian dishes from my mother and then through my experiences traveling to Singapore and experiencing their hawker stalls.
I go back quite often to South East Asia and Singapore to seek inspiration and Singapore’s hawker stalls are such vibrant places to enjoy some of the best street food in South East Asia. They are extremely well-organized as well.
Tell us about how your dishes would be prepared at a hawker stand in Singapore, and then how they’re prepared in your restaurant kitchen. Char Koay Teow (char means to fry and koay teow denotes broad noodles) is an iconic dish that is a must have when you visit any hawker centre in Singapore. We installed a stove capable of delivering high heat/flames so that we can give the dish “wok hei” (a Chinese cooking technique that seals in the flavors of the foods, as well as preserving their color and texture).
We adhere very closely to the original dish and use all the ingredients that make this dish so beloved – a true Char Koay Teow is cooked painstakingly one dish at a time. Also, when we can find blood cockles, which is also another essential ingredient of Char Koay Teow, we try and add it to the dish as well. They’re pretty hard to find but when we can get our hands on it, our guests, especially Singaporean and Malaysian customers are very happy campers.