At Desmond Chia’s airy, welcoming eatery along the bustling streets of Geylang, the menu is simple: one laminated page, 13 pictured items consisting of stir-fried vegetables, meat or seafood, steamed fish and two choices of soup. “You’ll notice we’re very different from other zichar places,” says Chia. “You won’t find fried rice or horfun here, just dishes to go with rice, just like what you might get at home.”
If the name Sik Bao Sin (Cantonese for “eat your fill first”) sounds familiar, it’s because Chia’s father used to run the popular Sik Wai Sin (“food comes first”) a few streets down. Chia Kok Hoong arrived from Guangdong, China, in the 1960s and started Sik Wai Sin as a small stall in Geylang in 1968. Then, it was one of the first few eateries in a district now known for its durian shops and delicious array of late-night supper spots.
A photo from the early days of Sik Wai Sin, and Desmond Chia (far right) with his father, Chia Kok Hoong.
Hailing from a family of cooks in China, the elder Chia came to Singapore armed with nothing but a certificate issued by the Chinese government to recognise accomplished chefs. “The elders used to say that you only need to master one skill to make a living for the rest of your life,” he says in Cantonese. So dedicated were he and his wife that he now jokes that Desmond Chia, the younger of two sons, was practically born at Sik Wai Sin. “That day when I opened for business, my wife told me that she was in labour, but it was only after we’d closed for the day that we called for a taxi to go to the hospital where she gave birth to Desmond.”
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Desmond Chia (pictured right, with his wife Joanna Chia) recalls growing up in the kitchen of Sik Wai Sin, playing while his father cooked and following him to the market for produce. In time, he and his older brother Steve took over the cooking, manning the wok and steaming stations respectively when their father retired.
In 2013, with the encouragement of their customers and his father’s blessings, Desmond Chia and his wife, Joanna, decided to strike out on their own, opening Sik Bao Sin. “I came to Singapore on my own all those years ago to make a new life for myself,” says Chia Kok Hoong. “If you don’t see for yourself, you won’t know just how much you are capable of. That’s my hope for my son as well, for him to be recognised for his own work. That’s why I am so proud that his restaurant has received the Bib Gourmand this year.”
At Sik Bao Sin, the son has continued his father’s tradition of being the only cook in the kitchen, whipping up a fiery storm in front of his blackened wok. “Every day, when I step into the kitchen and I turn on the fire, it’s like I’m cooking for my family. It has to be fresh, it has to be the best ingredients and I always cook from the heart.” While that means the wait is longer than usual, the food that finally arrives is consistent and comes imbued with a personal, home-cooked touch.
Desmond Chia continues his father's tradition of being the only cook in the kitchen.
Most of the offerings on the menu are from Sik Wai Sin’s pantheon of dishes: silky tofu prawns doused in umami-rich gravy, ginger chicken flambéed in a fiery wok so it retains its smoky kiss and crisp green kailan stir-fried with precision just so the stems snap between your teeth and the leaves are tender.
This humble-looking vegetable dish is a bestseller at Sik Bao Sin for its fresh, crunchy kailan.
Emerging from the steamer are big bowls of soup, herbal black chicken and watercress, a plain-looking minced pork patty that packs a savoury punch from salted fish and the legendary steamed carp fish head, its white flesh sweet and smooth against the salty fermented bean paste.
The legendary steamed carp fish head with fermented black bean sauce and copious amounts of crispy lard.
“All the dishes here are from Sik Wai Sin except the prawns with special sauce, which was something I always cooked at home for my son. He loves it and so I decided to put it on the menu because I always emphasise that what I’m doing is home-cooked food,” says Desmond Chia.
“I always tell my customers that I will use my heart to cook for them, and I will only lose to one person in the family — their wife or mother — because they will use their love to cook for the family.”
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Rachel Tan is the Associate Digital Editor at the MICHELIN Guide Digital. A former food magazine writer based in Singapore, she has a degree in communications for journalism but is a graduate of the school of hard knocks in the kitchen. She writes to taste life twice.