Singaporean-style street food is trendy downtown, but you’ll find the real deal in a low-key Mississauga strip mall.
“Hmm,” hums Lilian Ow, staring intently at a photo spread The Grid recently ran about Hawker Bar, a new Singaporean-influenced restaurant on the Ossington strip. “Hmm,” she keeps humming as she moves along the page. It looks good, she says, but why is their tofu cut into small cubes when the pieces should be large?
Within minutes of walking into Lion City, her restaurant in a central Mississauga strip mall, it quickly becomes apparent that the grandmotherly Mrs. Ow takes tremendous pride in her role as the standard-bearer for Singapore’s Nyonya cuisine in the GTA. “This is the old-fashioned way of cooking,” she says, thrusting her menu at me. “The new way is fusion. Our way is the real, authentic Singapore food.”
As it happens, Singapore food is itself the product of culinary and cultural fusion. Prior to the British taking control in 1824, Singapore was a largely uninhabited island off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. It soon grew to become one of the world’s most important ports, a magnet for commerce, trade, and immigration, smack in the middle of Southeast Asia. Like New York a century before, or Toronto today, the mix of people drawn there—including Malaysians, Indonesians, Indians, Sri Lankans, Thais, Chinese, and Europeans—collectively formed local tastes. The result is Nyonya cuisine, a style of cooking that marries all of these cultures together, with the strongest influences coming from the prominent Chinese and Malay ethnic groups.
Ow was born in Singapore to a Chinese family. Her father was a manager at the Singer sewing machine company, and she ran her own successful garment business, providing the uniforms for Singapore’s airport and airline (her current table cloths are made from the same fabric). In the late 1970s, the government of Lee Kuan Yew, who ruled Singapore as a parliamentary autocracy for half a century—only recently ceding power to his son—expropriated her factory, forcing Ow out of business. She decided to enroll in cooking school, where, ironically, Kuan Yew’s mother taught. In 1980, Ow opened her own, eponymous cooking school in Singapore, and for 10 years taught locals the city-state’s best dishes, like chili crab.
The family moved to Mississauga in 1991 so that Ow’s two sons could avoid military service. During her first few years in Canada, she spent most of her time cooking at home. “We had one other couple we knew, so we always invited them over,” she says. “They’d bring friends who were Indian, Chinese, or Canadian, and they’d all say, ‘Lilian, you need to start a restaurant.’ So I did.” Lion City opened in 1995, and Ow hasn’t left the kitchen since. She cooks seven days a week while her husband mans the cash. “He works for me now,” she says with a laugh.
In the kitchen, the 71-year-old Ow grabs a handful of broad rice noodles, prawns, flat chives, sliced chicken sausage, and fish cake, and heads over to a hot wok. She pours in oil, then adds an egg and the noodles, stir-frying it all around quickly while adding squirts of soy, fish, and chili sauces. “Come,” she commands, ladling it onto a plate. “Enjoy the food before it gets cold.”
The table piles up with more examples of Nyonya cooking: juicy skewers of pork and beef, Indonesian-style satay, and oh luak, an oyster omelette that’s made with glutinous flour—gooey in some parts, crisp in others—topped with a smear of pungent, fiery chili sauce and shrimp paste. Her pride and joy is Hainanese chicken rice, a simple plate of white rice and sliced braised chicken leg, rendered tender and juicy in stock, and accompanied by dipping dishes of a secret black soy-based sauce, sweet chili jam, and minced-garlic-and-ginger paste.
“I make all the curry powders and sauces myself,” Ow says, proudly, as she sets a bowl of her brisket curry in front of me. Tender hunks of meat and potatoes are laced with the sweet kick of coconut-milk-and-cumin-spiked gravy, which she encourages me to sop up with flaky, Indian-style roti bread. It’s an oh-my-god type of dish, the sort of flavour bomb where, after one bite, you’re ready to order another to take home for later.
Members of the GTA’s Singaporean community, small as it is, regularly trek in from as far afield as Markham to eat at Lion City. “A lot of customers want me to open downtown,” Ow says, “but I’m fussy. Someone else would cook it differently. That’s my problem.” She sees her role as the guardian of her culture’s food traditions, making sure rarely found dishes, like fish-head curry and braised goose (both regular specials), remain available for those who know it or want to give it a try.
Wrapping up the leftovers, she insists on sending me home with flaky pineapple tarts (shaped like the fruit, and filled with caramel). I try to object, but a longtime customer from Malaysia advises otherwise. “Don’t refuse anything she offers.”
Lion City, 1177 Central Pkwy. W., 905-281-0860, lioncityrestaurant.ca.