Ben Yeo Opens Zi Char Stall, Serves Charcoal Fish Head Steamboat With Giant Grouper - 8 Days Skip to main content

Ben Yeo Opens Zi Char Stall, Serves Charcoal Fish Head Steamboat With Giant Grouper

Ben partnered his zi char cook cousin to offer steamboat and “hard-to-find Malaysian zi char dishes”.
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Actor and hawkerpreneur Ben Yeo quietly opened a new zi char stall in May, and its traditional charcoal fish head steamboat has been making waves among those in the know.

Simply called Charcoal Fish Head Steamboat Restaurant, the stall is located in the same Kallang industrial canteen as his three other F&B concepts: izakaya-style food stall SG Umami, Korean fusion lok lok stall Geon Bae, and beer garden, Playground. 

As only four of the seven food stalls at the premises operate at night, Ben, 43, wanted to start a zi char stall to offer more food options. It will also “make the place more happening and vibrant”.

“I’ve been talking about opening a zi char stall since the beginning of this year but it’s difficult to find experienced chefs. So, when I found out that my cousin, who is a zi char chef, wanted to quit his job and return to Malaysia to start his own business, I suggested we work together instead,” he tells 8days.sg.

Ben’s 32-year-old cousin, who prefers to be known as Ah Di, has been working as a cook at various hawker and zi char stalls for almost 18 years. His last stint was as a chef with zi char chain FuLee Seafood.

Together with chef Cao Yong, who was part of Team Singapore at the 2015 World Championship Chef Competition in Shanghai, where they emerged champions, the trio invested around $50,000 to start the biz. Cao Yong also co-owns Geon Bae and runs a zi char hawker stall in Jurong with his father.

All the recipes were developed by Cao Yong and Ah Di, while the latter does the cooking daily.

The taste of nostalgia

As the name of the stall suggests, the star here is their charcoal fish head steamboat. Ben wanted to offer the dish as it has a special place in his heart.

“For me Playground is about childhood memories, so I wanted to offer dishes that remind me of my childhood. Charcoal fish head steamboat was something my mum only made during Chinese New Year and when we were young, it was a luxury. I wanted to recapture the nostalgia of family and friends bonding over a steamboat meal,” he says.

The steamboat is served with your choice of giant grouper or red grouper slices. Prices start from $40 for a small pot which feeds two pax, to $88 for a large one for six pax. Add-ons like tofu, handmade meatballs and Iberico pork slices are also available from $3.

“A lot of customers are surprised that we offer long dan (the Chinese name for premium giant grouper) and they really like it ’cos the meat is firm and the skin thick and gelatinous, so there’s a lot of collagen,” shares Ben.
Ben's famous friends came by to support and makan. Spotted were Elvin Ng, Romeo Tan, Zheng Geping, Hong Huifang, Chen Hanwei, and Cynthia Koh. In bottom pics: Ben with Lee Teng, Quan Yifeng, Vivian Lai, Hong Ling, Nick Teo, Romeo, Aileen Tan, Zoe Tay, Hong Zhaorong and Elvin.

Celebrities love fish head steamboat

The fish head steamboat’s broth is made from simmering a variety of fish bones for four hours, then cooked again with other ingredients like fried yam, tofu, cabbage and fried fish head just before serving.

“This is why it takes so long to prepare it,” says Ben. “A lot of people think steamboat is very easy and fast ‘cos the broth is prepared beforehand and fish slices are served raw, but we cook the broth again to enhance the taste.”

Ben’s showbiz pals like Quan Yifeng, Zoe Tay, Cynthia Koh, Romeo Tan and Elvin Ng have been spotted enjoying the steamboat.

Former MasterChef UK contestant, Singapore-born UK-based chef Elizabeth Haigh, who runs kopitiam kiosk Mei Mei at London’s Borough Market, dropped by for a meal when she was in town earlier this month.

“She loves the food. She said her mum, who is Singaporean, also makes charcoal fish head steamboat during Chinese New Year,” says Ben.

He adds: “We are still in the soft launch phase and I have yet to publicise this stall ’cos I am afraid I cannot cope with the crowd. I am thankful that customers have been very supportive.”

Business has been brisk and the steamboat has been selling out at around 9pm every night (the stall closes at 11pm).

“We are already preparing more broth so we don’t have to turn customers away. Previously, Ah Di handled all the cooking but now that we have hired more cooks, we are better prepared for the crowd. We hope to turn this place into a supper spot,” says Ben.

Get a taste of hard-to-find Malaysian zi char dishes

Aside from fish head steamboat, the zi char menu here is also a throwback to the good old days. Besides the usual suspects like Prawn Paste Chicken and Cereal Prawns, there are also “hard-to-find traditional Malaysian zi char dishes” such as Kampong Fried Prawns, which Ben likens to “soft shell prawn where you can eat the shell and all”, and Sotong with Egg Floss.

“The squid is cooked like fried calamari and then topped liberally with fluffy strands of fried egg floss. It’s a simple dish but difficult to execute ‘cos it takes skill to fry the egg floss. My cousin is from a kampong in Kluang, a small town in Johor, and this old school dish is commonly served at weddings in Malaysia,” he shares.

In fact, couples who want to hold an intimate wedding with a “kampong vibe” can consider celebrating their big day at the canteen.  

“In the past, when our relatives in Kluang got married, the wedding would be held in a coffeeshop or a place like a community centre and a caterer would come to cook at the premises. We can create the same kind of experience at Playground,” suggests Ben.

“You can have the solemnisation and reception at the al fresco beer garden by the river, then head inside to the canteen area for dinner. I can even be the emcee for the wedding,” he jokes.

Check out some of the offerings at Charcoal Fish Head Steamboat Restaurant:

Fish Head Steamboat from $40 for small

Sotong with Egg Floss, $22
Kampong Fried Prawns, $18
Truffle Prawn Ball, $24
Iberico Pork Ribs, $24
Hei Zho (deep fried prawn roll), $12

Salted Egg Chicken, $12

Charcoal Fish Head Steamboat Restaurant is at 5 Kallang Place, S339152. Open daily except Mon (unless it is a public holiday), 6pm to 11pm. For reservations, Whatsapp 8847 3776. More info on Instagram.

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