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  Straits Times 18 Feb 07
Abalone - are you getting what you pay for?
Sunday Times finds out that there's more liquid than bao yu in that can
By Sarah Ng

Business Times 17 Feb 07
S'poreans splurge on New Year dinners
Restaurants serving delicacies costing up to $5,000 a table enjoy strong bookings this Chinese New Year season
By Wee Li-En

(SINGAPORE) Singaporeans feeling richer and more bullish about the economy are forking out top dollar at restaurants for luxurious family dinners this Chinese New Year.

Black moss from Tibet, 30-year-old fish maw from Yemen, sea cucumber and abalone from South Africa and unagi maw from India are among the delicacies they are demanding - and splashing out on.

Tam Kah Shark's Fin in Upper Cross Street, which used to serve pen cai at $300 for 10 people, is serving it at $1,000 and $5,000 with premium ingredients this year. The one-pot meal has been so well-received that the restaurant will not take more orders until Monday. There have been four orders for the $5,000 pen cai and about eight for the $1,000 meal.

And Prima Tower Revolving Restaurant's most expensive set is $1,388 for 10 people this year, up from $1,088 last year.

Restaurant manager and executive chef Chan Sung Og said: 'The economy is doing better now and people are more willing to spend on premium ingredients, so we added more top -quality ingredients.' It has received more than 10 reservations for the $1,388 set.

Prices of top-end set menus have also gone up at Pan Pacific's Hai Tien Lo. Its most expensive set is $138 per person this year, up from $128 last year.

A spokesman said that 'diners nowadays value quality' and there is a 'significant increase in the demand' for premium abalone and shark's fin. In fact, the restaurant is offering braised whole abalone with sea cucumber and fish maw in black truffle reduction topped with imperial swiftlet's nest at $178 for a single serving - its most expensive dish - just for Chinese New Year. It must be ordered three days in advance.

While prices have not gone up at Four Seasons Hotel's Jiang-Nan Chun, its most popular set menus this year are $168 and $198 per person, compared with last year's best-sellers at $148 and $168 per person.

'With the economy looking up and the general upbeat feeling all round, we are seeing more discerning diners willing to buy our higher priced menus,' a spokesman for Jiang-Nan Chun said.

Diners are also asking for more expensive dishes and customising more expensive sets.

Crystal Jade Palace said there has been a 10 per cent increase in take-up this year for its more expensive sets, priced at between $600 and $1,500 for 10 people.

Golden Peony at Conrad Centennial Hotel also said it has 'received more requests this year for more expensive menus' than it did last year. One of its most expensive customised sets this year is a whopping $4,068 for four people, which comes with a bottle of Chateau Margaux 1983.

And Lei Gardens said there are more orders for customised menus this year which come at prices far exceeding its most expensive set that costs $1,388 for 10.

It isn't just the super rich snapping up these meals. One customer who ordered Tam Kah's $5,000 pen cai, Corbjin Chong, insists he is just 'an ordinary Singaporean'. The 31-year-old manager at StarElite Investments lives with his driver father, odd-job labourer mother and younger doctor brother in a four-room HDB flat in Sengkang. Mr Chong said he wanted to treat his family to a special meal as this year will be good for him, according to the zodiac. Besides, he gets a 20 per cent discount for the pen cai as an OCBC titanium card holder.

Restaurants also said they have been swamped by a rush of early reservations. 'Usually there are still some tables available throughout the 15 days of Chinese New Year. But this year you have to reserve,' a spokesman for Imperial Treasure's Great World City branch said.

The Oriental Hotel's Cherry Garden also said it has few places left for most of the 15 days, with some days having been fully booked as early as two weeks ago. In contrast, many of last year's reservations came in 'at the last minute'.

Things are no different at most of Tung Lok Group's restaurants including Club Chinois, Jade, House of Hunan, My Humble House and its flagship Tung Lok Restaurant. Chief operating officer William Tan said: 'For the eve of Chinese New Year, almost all our restaurants are already fully booked' and there 'were more advance bookings than in previous years.'

There are also less conventional takes on Chinese New Year meals.

Szechuan Court at Raffles The Plaza has reinvented lo hei with its champagne ivory chocolate 'frutti lo hei'. At $88 for 10 people, the dish features fruits and finely-shredded vegetables in a sweet chocolate sauce.

Additional reporting by Tan Wen Li and Janice Heng

Straits Times 18 Feb 07
Abalone - are you getting what you pay for?
Sunday Times finds out that there's more liquid than bao yu in that can
By Sarah Ng

THAT expensive can of abalone may feel heavy in your hands, but in fact the stuff you are paying all that money for makes up less than half the weight.

A Sunday Times' test of five popular brands of canned Australian abalone found that actual abalone content accounted for between just 36.8 per cent and 44.1 per cent of the net weight.

Depending on the brand, a can of abalone costs between $44.80 and $49.90, but which one offers the best value for money?

For easy comparison, The Sunday Times measured the cost per 100g of drained abalone of five brands: Fortune, Golden Chef, New Moon, Skylight and Woh Hup. Skylight emerged as the best, costing just $23 per 100g. Golden Chef was the most expensive, at $ 27.30 per 100g. The other brands cost between $23.50 and $27 per 100g.

Taking up more than half the space in the cans is the liquid in which the abalone is cooked, which is made up of water, salt, polyphospate and antioxidant.

Said microbiologist Lionel Lau, deputy director of life sciences at Nanyang Polytechnic: 'During the canning process, the abalone is cooked together with the liquid in the can. Some of it may dissolve in the liquid, which then becomes what some people would call abalone stock. But don't drink too much of this stock because it is full of salt and preservatives.'

The Sunday Times test was carried out in response to an exchange of letters in The Straits Times Forum page earlier this month.

Sales manager Tan Poh Thiam, 43, had written to suggest that regulatory measures be imposed on suppliers and importers to ensure that the cans show what the weight of the abalone will be after the liquid has been drained off. Mr Tan said he believed the can he bought this year contained less abalone than those he bought in previous years.

A week after his letter was published, standards body Spring Singapore wrote to say it had tested the brand Mr Tan was complaining about and found that it met the net weight of 425g.

The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) also clarified that although declaration of net weight is mandatory on pre- packed food, declaration of drained weight is not. AVA told The Sunday Times that there is no legal requirement on the minimum amount of abalone in a can, but said it will review the need for declaration of drained weight on labels for food products.

Some manufacturers - namely Fortune, Golden Chef and Woh Hup - already display the drained weight. Skylight and New Moon do not.

Mr Goh Kai Kui, chief executive of Goh Joo Hin, which produces New Moon abalone, explained: 'Abalone shrinks when heated and each abalone reacts differently to heat. It is therefore not easy to control the exact amount of shrinkage, but we always make sure that the weight of our abalone is between 160g and 230g.'

Fortune, Golden Chef and Woh Hup met the 180g or 185g drained weight declared on their 425g cans, within the industry standard fluctuation of 5 to 10 per cent.

The Consumers Association of Singapore argues that it should be mandatory for manufacturers to tell consumers how much food is inside the packaging. Said executive director Seah Seng Choon: 'We would like to urge importers to impress upon the manufacturers to provide such information. With the display of both weights (net and drained weights), consumers would have a better gauge of the actual amount of abalone in the can.'

Abalone is highly prized by the Chinese and is especially popular during Chinese New Year because its name in Mandarin, bao yu, sounds like bao ying, which means 'sure to win'.

But with most brands offering more stock than abalone, some consumers are left wondering whether the only people 'sure to win' are the manufacturers and importers. ngsls@sph.com.sg

Five things not to eat for Chinese New Year TRAFFIC 12 Feb 07

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