Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Sungei Road laksa

Sungei Road laksa at Yuhua market.

GRACIOUS, Sungei Road laksa has travelled far and wide in Singapore. My last Google search yielded five such stalls -- two in the vicinity of Serangoon area where Sungei Road is -- one in Chinatown, one in Jurong East and another as far as Bedok!

The signature taste of the Sungei Road laksa which started out in a pot on a trishaw at Sungei Road, was its soup -- brewed over a charcoal fire. I am not sure whether this is still being done at all the five stalls.

I always thought that the one at Jalan Berseh is the real thing -- but somehow I always missed it and ended up eating some other stuff. I tried the one at Hong Lim in Chinatown, but it was only so so. It tasted ordinary to me, sad to say. Not so different from Katong's laksa.

Recently, I stumbled upon the one at Jurong East, at the Yuhua Market and Hawker Centre. There wasn't a queue at all. The soup was a little bland and thin. I guess I should stir it more because some tasty bits were at the bottom. I always liked those tasty bits which I think could be pounded hae bee (dried shrimps) and spices like ganlanga and lemon grass.

Well, maybe this is the old school taste after all. We could be too used to modern day laksa -- much richer and thicker soup -- compared to the prudent old days.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

An enchanted tale of wanton mee

Does anyone know where one can have a plate of wanton
noodles that would take one back to the 60s or 70s? Even the
 80s would be good.  
IT'S Qing Ming. This festival is not like the 7th month or what is commonly known as the Month of the Hungry Ghosts. However, there is still a bit of "enchantment" associated with the season -- it is the Chinese "All Souls Day" after all. So here's a short ghost story, or rather, a little tale of "enchantment":

A VERY hot day though April was supposed to be rainy and full of thunderstorms. Yunji was on her way to Jurong Point for lunch. Looking out of the bus window as was her habit since she was a kid, she saw a coffee shop at the corner of an old block of flats. Strange that she had never noticed this place before.

On impulse, she decided to try out this nice little coffee shop -- instead of the noisy and crowded food court at Jurong Point. She quickly pressed the buzzer and alighted at the next bus stop. She was glad that there was an overhead bridge to the other side of the road where the quaint, out-of-place coffee shop was beckoning.

Strange that I never saw this overhead bridge before, Yunji muttered to herself as she climbed up the steps.

There wasn't a soul on this side of the road. That is so strange, Yunji thought to herself. Usually, at this time, there would be housewives dragging their shopping on those ubiquitous tiny trolleys, or students rushing home from schools. Today, not a soul!

There was a certain stillness at the coffee shop -- just the gentle clink-clink of dishes being washed that sounded kind of distant. Only two old men were tucking in their food quietly. An old fashioned signboard said "Tian Tian Kopi Diam".  To her delight, one of the stalls was selling jiaozi and another, wanton mee. 

Actually, there were just these two stalls, and a drink stall. Jiaozi or wanton mee? It took her a while to decide because both were her favourite food. In the end, wanton mee won.

"Korn lo," she told the stall seller, a smiley woman with short permed hair -- clad in samfoo. The samfoo was the sweetest Yunji had seen -- white with small pink and blue roses.

Strange again. Normally she would have ordered "wanton mee, da". But she had automatically said "korn lo" instead, which is the Cantonese for "dry mix". This means having your noodles mixed in chili sauce and ketchup.

As she sat down on the wooden chair at the marble-topped table, she saw that the floor was covered with mosaic from end to end -- sparkling clean! Where to find, Yunji muttered to herself.

Yunji gobbled down her noodles with gusto, all the while suppressing a desire to whisk out her handphone to take a picture of the seller. Where in Singapore can you find a wanton mee seller in samfoo these days? Not even in Chinatown.

The samfoo-clad woman even came to her table and snipped the noodles on her plate with a pair of scissors so that the strands were easier to slurp down. Right out of my childhood, Yunji thought, as she thanked the woman. The noodles were right out of her childhood too -- with the old school taste of chili sauce and ketchup. The char siew was roasted just right -- tender, with tiny crispy corners. The soup with the tiny dumplings was served separately in a small little bowl.

Yunji ordered a cup of kopi-o from the drink stall to round up her lunch. Much to her surprise, she saw bottles of Green Spot and Sinalco on the shelves. Wow! But the guy behind the counter was a no-nonsense fat man with white singlet and draw-string pyjama pants, so Yunji had second thoughts about asking him why he was still selling those drinks that had disappeared since a long, long time ago.

The next day, Yunji thought she would bring her lunch kakis to the quaint coffee shop. Looking out for the overhead bridge which was where they were supposed to alight, Yunji was puzzled that there wasn't one.

"Why, it was just after this turning," Yunji told her two colleagues. In the end, they had lunch -- the usual -- at Jurong Point.

The day after, Yunji thought she would give the coffee shop a try again. Once again, she couldn't find the overhead bridge. But she alighted anyway, where she thought the bridge would be. Crossing at a pedestrian crossing at the road junction ahead, she made her way across the road.

There was no sight of Tian Tian Kopi Diam at all -- though Yunji walked for almost an hour up and down the road, with her umbrella holding up against strong winds -- and a slight drizzle. A thunderstorm was threatening to break out.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

When debates were black and white

DEBATES. There are more and more debates these days in Singapore -- on social media -- and perhaps a little in coffee shops.

But I do so miss the good old debate series on B&W TV, especially those with Max Le Blond chairing them -- in the early 1970s. Actually I think he was first a debater before chairing the series. Always a joy to watch him. The last bit, when the judges were debating over the results, was the best bit as that was the time for members of the audience to have their say too.

If I remember rightly, the series was aired at 7pm over channel 5. Love to see the top-tiered schools pitched against each other. Remember rushing home from school to catch it.

Wish I had a screen grab of the old debate series... but in those days, who would have ever dreamed that you can take a picture of what's happening on your TV set? Or a mobile phone that lets you take pictures anytime and anywhere?

Treasures from a Shandong couple

Guotie (pan-fried jiaozi) brought all the way from Beijing to Singapore,
made by my friend, Pauline Dawn Loh. Mum used to make such dumplings too,
which she learnt from a Shandong friend in Singapore.

My parents used to know this couple from Shandong. The wife was tall and big. The husband was tall and thin. They visited us often. Sometimes, I would follow my parents to their house which was at Medway Drive, just a few lanes down from where we lived in Serangoon Gardens. I liked their house which had a porch. I don't remember a single piece of soft furniture in their living room, but it was cosy nonetheless.

They had endless conversations. I would have a plate of peanuts all to myself while they talked. The wife toasted the nuts without oil and with just a bit of salt. I loved the filmsy, flaky skin which tasted salty and sweet at the same time. And after I finished the plate, the wife or the husband would refill it with more peanuts stored in an airtight Milo can.

The husband sometimes entertained me (as he knew I was bored) by playing the saxophone and the violin. I wondered why he wasn't a member of the orchestra or something. Perhaps he was when he was young.

They were always very neat in their appearance. The wife wore black rimmed glasses. Her hair was jet black (maybe dyed), a straight, one-length bob with side parting, clipped securely at the longer side. She wore simple tailored dresses (mostly in dark shades) that reached down to her calves. She had a rich timbre to her voice, and occasionally would let off a hearty guffaw.

The husband has his hair combed back like Tony Tan, but not as black. He wore short sleeved shirts (usually checked) and baggy pants with cuffs. He spoke softly and didn't seem as gregarious as the wife. He smoked quite a bit too -- cigarettes from a green tin -- Consulate. Once, he showed me a pipe and sachets of tobacco. I remember one of the gifts he gave Dad was a gold cigarette case. I had many moments of fun springing the lid open and close. Those days, smoking was common, though already known to be bad for health, it was not as publicised.

Their conversations with my parents were always peppered with laughter. I enjoyed listening to them though I wasn't at all sure what they were talking about.

I don't think this Shandong couple had many friends here. My parents seemed to be among their very few. They drove and would sometimes take us to a dinner of jiaozi (dumplings) in Chinatown. But first, they would weave in and out of the stalls in People's Park, The stalls were then outdoor, with many meandering narrow alleys formed by the arrangement of the stalls. They were fond of crockery, cloth, household goods. They spent a great deal of time browsing -- till they saw my long face -- and it dawned on them that it was way past dinner time.

My mum learnt the art of making jiaozi from the wife. Many happy hours were spent with me helping to knead the dough and rolling it out into neat rounds, using a Red Lion bottle ( popular brand of a drink in the 60s) as a rolling pin. Mum would be busy mixing the minced pork and cabbage for the filling. Dough left under a wet towel would have faces formed on them (by me of course) --  the "Play Doh" of today!

The wife also gave my mum, neatly cut rectangles of materials, kept in biscuit tins. These were laboriously cut with edges pinked, from scraps of materials leftover from her dresses. My mum would sew those little pieces into patchwork blankets for us. I would steal a few pieces to make into clothes for my dolls. I had many happy hours looking at all the pieces of materials and thinking of what design would go well with the various material.

The treasures from this Shandong couple were generous, textured and so rich.