I can’t remember what I was doing when I was 24 years old, but I was certainly not ambitious enough to start my own business or go into the hawker trade. And then there’s 24-year-old Noel Phua, the brains behind Sambae — a hawker stall at Ang Mo Kio that sells sambal rice bowls.
Noel always knew that he wanted to work with food.
He studied at ITE College West, got a Nitec cert in Asian Culinary Arts, and his raw talent for cooking paid off when he went on to compete in national and international competitions, such as WorldSkills Singapore and ASEAN Skills Competition. He represented Singapore and clinched the third place for both competitions.
After graduation, he worked towards opening his first food stall— specifically in the hawker scene. “I wanted everyone to be able to afford my food, and I can only do that if I come out to be a hawker,” he shared.
Why sambal though?
“Whenever I wanted to eat sambal stingray, I was frustrated because I always had to share it with family and friends. There was never a one-portion sambal stingray,” he said. “That’s why I knew I wanted to come out to offer that.”
In fact, after weeks of stressing over how to name his sambal-themed hawker stall, it was his girlfriend who eventually coined the term ‘Sambae’. “Why are you worrying so much? Sambal is your bae,” she told Noel. A lightbulb went off in his head and Sambae (aka sambal + bae) was born.
What I tried
Noel shared that he makes his sambal from scratch, so I was pretty excited to dig into Noel’s Sambae Stingray Rice Bowl with Onsen Egg (S$7.50).
For just S$7.50, I got three slices of stingray slathered in a house-made sambal sauce (Noel shared that the portion of stingrays go by weight, so each bowl gets around 100g of stingray), a bed of pearl rice, an onsen egg, pickled cucumbers, and sliced onions.
The smell of the sambal made my mouth water instantly. It was fragrant and sweet, with a good spicy base that reminded me of fried ikan bilis and fish stock.
I took a bite of the sambal and was impressed by its depth of flavour. It was sweet at first, but then the spice crept in and lingered on my tongue in a smoky way. It had a good gritty texture and wasn’t too spicy, and I enjoyed it immensely with a cup of iced teh.
As for the stingray itself— the white meat came apart cleanly, which was a huge plus point. However, depending on the size and shape of the piece of stingray, some parts turned out to be a little drier than others. Not to mention that I also found some small bones in the stingray, which was a slight inconvenience.
However, I definitely could see the appeal of a sambal stingray rice bowl. I’ll no longer need to share it with friends and family because this individual portion will be all for me.
Despite taking some time to take photos of the dish, the onsen egg was still delightfully jiggly and soft, and I was pleased with the consistency of the yolk, which was runny.
The onsen egg didn’t do much in terms of flavour, but it added a nice creaminess to the rice, which got a little dry because of the lack of gravy.
Noel’s Sambae Lala (S$12/S$14) was next on the list. I absolutely love lala, so I was ready to dig right in.
This was my favourite dish for the day. Not just because I love lala, but because Sambae’s sambal was smoky, full-bodied and savoury, and went perfectly with the tender meat from the lala.
This is the kind of spicy and shiok sambal that made my ears tingle gently. I’m so glad that this underrated dish is finally served with legitimate sambal in a coffee shop, because I could see myself enjoying this with a nice cold pint of beer.
I also managed to try its Sambae Sotong (S$15/S$19), which was slathered in the same house-made sambal sauce.
I’ve got to say, I know how hard it is to cook sotong because it’s easy to overcook and the meat will end up tough and rubbery.
However, Sambae’s sotong was perfectly cooked and I had no issues biting through the tender meat. This was a great sharing piece, as you’ve got that briny sweetness from the seafood with a spicy kick from the sambal. I highly recommend squeezing the lime to add a bright acidity to each bite.
According to Noel, the Chicken Nanban (S$4.90) is one of the more popular items on the menu, despite it not having any sambal at all.
This is because most of Sambae’s customers tend to order beer, especially towards the end of the night, so the Chicken Nanban is a great sharing side to nibble on.
I could immediately tell that the Chicken Nanban was freshly made the minute I bit into it, because it was piping hot and incredibly juicy.
However, the nanban sauce is the undisputed hero of this dish because of its mayo-like sweetness. It was salty and tangy, while retaining a mild creamy texture. Each bite was addictive, and my dining companions and I ended up polishing this dish off first.
At 24 years of age, Noel Phua displays a rare tenacity and discipline that’s hard to come by. His offerings are certainly impressive and promising, with a couple of shortcomings that can be easily tweaked with time. The next time I feel like indulging in stingray but don’t have the company to share it with, I’ll drop by Sambae for its single-portion Sambal Stingray Rice Bowl.
I’m looking forward to seeing what else Sambae has to offer. If Noel bottled his house-made sambal sauce, I’d even consider buying it so that I can go home and pair it with plain rice or noodles. (hint hint)
Expected damage: S$2.90 – S$19 per pax
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