Nian Nian You Yu: Young hawkers dish out single steamed fish sets from $8 in Maxwell Food Centre

·6-min read

It’s always crowded in Maxwell Food Centre, but finding Nian Nian You Yu was pretty easy. Not only does this humble hawker stall garner large queues that start even before they open, their bright blue signage makes it effortless to spot.

I was here to try what everyone had been raving about: its steamed fish sets that cater to solo diners, perfect for folks in the CBD looking for a wholesome home-cooked style meal.

Nian Nian You Yu - storefront
Nian Nian You Yu - storefront

The stall’s name, Nian Nian You Yu, is a playful spin on the popular Chinese greeting that’s always uttered during Chinese New Year (年年有余), as the last character in the phrase has the same pronunciation as fish (鱼). 

It’s run by two young male hawkers— Issac Lim, 28, and Eric Kee, 30— both of whom have plenty of experience in the F&B industry. Issac worked at Michelin-starred French restaurant Bacchanalia (which was later rebranded as Vianney Massot Restaurant), and one-Michelin star Sommer. Meanwhile, Eric’s family runs a kopitiam in Yishun, and he was helping to manage it full-time.

Nian Nian You Yu - preparing fish
Nian Nian You Yu - preparing fish

Most zi char stalls tend to sell whole fishes, so the pair was inspired to sell one-person steamed fish sets to cater to solo diners. 

We dropped by Nian Nian You Yu near the end of their lunch crowd shift, and seeing them work was absolutely fascinating. Fresh supplies of pomfret and seabass are sent by their suppliers every day, with each supply covering them for the dinner crowd and the following day’s lunch crowd. 

Previously, the supplier would send them whole portions of fish, Issac and Eric tell us. “We’d have to cut, wash and prepare each fish individually, but thankfully now the supplier helps us to cut the fish into single portions already.”

Nian Nian You Yu - preparing fish
Nian Nian You Yu - preparing fish

Still, the work is tedious. Each piece of fish has to be individually washed, and in the case of the seabass, descaled. After the skin is scored, every fish is topped with sliced ginger before being popped into the commercial tiered steamer for six minutes. 

Nian Nian You Yu - sauces
Nian Nian You Yu - sauces

Once cooked, the fish is topped with your sauce of choice— you can pick between either Hong Kong Style Sauce, or top up S$1 for the Thai Style Garlic & Lime, both of which are made in-house.

What I tried at Nian Nian You Yu

Nian Nian You Yu - pomfret
Nian Nian You Yu - pomfret

Nian Nian You Yu only offers two types of fish, Seabass and Pomfret, both of which cost S$8.

“We started out selling it at S$5 each as we wanted to make it affordable for everyone, but due to the rising costs, we had no choice but to increase our prices,” shared Issac and Eric. First, they raised it to S$6.50, and as of September 2022, each set of steamed fish costs S$8.

I started out with the Pomfret and got it with the Hong Kong Style Sauce. Each set comes with a bowl of white rice and soup.

Nian Nian You Yu - pomfret
Nian Nian You Yu - pomfret

With firm and plump meat, this Pomfret was an absolute delight. I loved how there was no hint of fishiness at all. Thin slices of ginger brought a bright freshness to each bite, while the crispy garlic chips were addictive and added that smoky umami flavour.

The Hong Kong Style Sauce is essentially a soy-based sauce with chicken stock, garlic and ginger. Drinking the sauce by itself was a little too salty for my taste buds, but pairing it with the Pomfret meat was such a classic combination of naturally sweet yet salty flavours that won me over.

Don’t be deceived by the photos however, as while it might’ve looked like I had been given an entire pomfret, it’s actually half! Yet, for S$8, I’d say that this portion filled me up just right, and would make for a satisfying meal for most solo diners.

Nian Nian You Yu - seabass
Nian Nian You Yu - seabass

I moved on to Nian Nian You Yu’s Seabass, and topped up S$1 to get the Thai Style Garlic & Lime Sauce.

Almost immediately, I could smell the piquant and zesty scent of lime, as well as a hint of spice from the garlic.

Nian Nian You Yu - seabass
Nian Nian You Yu - seabass

The Seabass instantly impressed me with its softness. Due to the cut of fish that I had been given, the meat came apart in large, huge chunks with no bones, and I eagerly popped each nugget of silky fish meat in my mouth. 

Like the Pomfret, the fish meat from the Seabass had no hint nor smell of fishiness at all. Instead, what I got was a really pleasant fresh sweetness, which melted into a soft mix of fish flesh after a couple of chews. 

The Thai sauce was more sour than I expected and reminded me of mookata chilli. Bright yet savoury, it had a strong hint of garlic, lime and lemongrass, with a subtle savouriness from fish sauce.

With every bite. I found myself alternating between the Seabass and Pomfret. While the Pomfret was the classic pairing of soy sauce and fresh fish, the Seabass surprised me with its piquant zestiness, which whetted my palate in an appetising manner.

Nian Nian You Yu - tiger prawns
Nian Nian You Yu - tiger prawns

Apart from the two main steamed fish dishes, Nian Nian You Yu also sells a handful of à la carte dishes, such as Steamed Vegetable (S$3), Pan-seared Eggplant (S$4) and Steamed Egg (S$1)

We decided to try one of its steamed à la carte seafood dishes— the Steamed Tiger Prawns w/ Lala & Vermicelli (S$10).

Nian Nian You Yu - tiger prawns
Nian Nian You Yu - tiger prawns

The tiger prawns were supple and taut, which were a sure sign of their freshness, and I appreciated how nicely cooked they were. Be sure to dip it in the soy-based Hong Kong Style Sauce for that extra savoury kick!

Nian Nian You Yu - vermicelli
Nian Nian You Yu - vermicelli

As a huge lala lover, I expected the steamed lalas to be my favourite component of this dish. Yet, I was blown away by the vermicelli, which had been steamed separately and doused in the salty, umami-filled Hong Kong Style Sauce. Slippery and smooth, each strand of vermicelli soaked was soaked with gravy and became really addictive once it was topped with crispy bits of garlic chips.

Final thoughts

Nian Nian You Yu - steamed fish sets
Nian Nian You Yu - steamed fish sets

I’ve got to say, I was really impressed by Nian Nian You Yu’s offerings. Though simple (I mean, it’s really just steamed fish), it made for a super satisfying meal as each fish was substantial enough for my appetite. Not to mention, they were steamed perfectly well too, resulting in soft, plump pieces of flesh with zero fishiness, and were topped off with well-executed sauces.

As someone who has a fear of swallowing fish bones, I found myself preferring the Seabass as due to the cut we were given, there were less bones and more flesh. Yet, I can see myself ordering the Pomfret with Hong Kong Style Sauce on days where I’m craving something simple yet classic. 

In hindsight, my only gripe would be the lack of variety, though I understand why the two young hawkers kept the menu simple for now. Perhaps with time, they’ll be able to expand their menu to include more styles of cooking and have a wider variety of soups and rice options too.

Expected damage: S$6 – S$10 per pax

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