Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Straits Times : Mourning my mee pok

The Straits Times
Apr 11, 2010
By Chua Mui Hoong

I'm faithful to my hawker food crushes, so you can imagine my pain when my favourite stalls go belly up

I am like the walking wounded, traversing Singapore lamenting my loss.

Different corners of the island remind me of what is gone, never to return. I recall past times fondly, but with an ache in my heart for what used to be, but will never be again.

There are substitutes, but nothing can replace the original.

At Mosque Street, I walk down the row of shophouses and feel an aching void as my stomach grumbles that it is time for my yong tau foo fix. But OK Yong Tau Foo, my favourite since a good friend introduced me to its stall 20 years ago, has gone.

That stall was famous for its expensive yong tau foo. Its trademark was a dried oyster fish ball, and there was also its mushroom fish ball, both at about $2 a pop. Then there was the deep-fried fish roe. Don't get me going. Reminiscing about what used to be, gets my salivary juices all astir. Provoking desire without the possibility of satisfaction is a cruel and unusual punishment.

I never quite figured out how much each item cost, but a satisfying lunch there with springy noodles and its distinctive sweet spicy chilli, usually costs upwards of $15.

I asked someone from the neighbouring shophouse - the Chinese pastry shop which is also an institution in its own right - where they had moved to and was upset to hear that they had retired and closed shop.

I don't know if they passed on their skills and knowledge to anyone who can carry on the tradition. Otherwise, a little bit of Singapore's social and food history fades away.

There are substitutes such as the ampang yong tau foo at Upper Thomson and Katong, and the ikan bilis yong tau foo at Chinatown hawker centre. But I am still in mourning for that oyster fish ball and the deep-fried roe.

And for the mee pok in my neighbourhood. This is a nondescript stall in a nondescript coffee shop in Upper Thomson. The guy operates from a stall with no signboard. He moved from one coffee shop to another across the road when the rental went up - and his clients just followed him across the road, although some poor uninformed newbies thought the new operator that took over his space selling mee pok was the real deal.

When I was in Boston for graduate studies, I missed that mee pok man with a vengeance. When I returned, touching down in Singapore close to midnight, jetlag, hunger and lust kept me awake through the night. By 6am, I had walked out to the coffee shop to wait for my mee pok man to turn up to whip up the object of my desire. An hour later, I was a satisfied woman. During periods of intense infatuation, I eat there three times a week.

I had just introduced that precious stall to my boyfriend, and even got him to acknowledge my mee pok was better than his mee pok. I hadn't managed to get him to concede my yong tau foo was better than his, and we had a truce on our respective prawn noodles, so the mee pok was an important triumph.

And then the guy had to close shop and disappear. The other stallholders didn't know where he had gone. Word was that he got into debt trouble and closed shop.

When a favourite stall closes, something of us dies along with it.

I remember the anguish I felt when the wonton mee stall at the old National Library disappeared after the tiny food centre there closed down. Singaporeans of my vintage who went to the library in the 1970s and 1980s will remember slurping up the small plate of noodle done al dente and smooth wonton in five minutes flat, and the cool, sweet satisfaction of ending lunch with ice kacang in that small food centre.

It got so that I didn't know whether I was going to the library to borrow books or going there to eat wonton mee. Years later, someone told me that same wonton noodle could be found at Joo Chiat. I never managed to find it.

I develop a strong attachment to hawker food. A more recent but strong crush is the kway chap at the Upper Bukit Timah food centre.

I went through a bad patch with that kway chap when the kway chap uncle suddenly disappeared. His wife was still there, and a new, younger man. They still sold the same kway chap, the same handmade fish ball, the same steamed fish, the same braised innards. The wife said the uncle still did the cooking. But it didn't taste the same and I stopped going.

He has come back, tight-lipped about his absence. I'm just happy he's back to cook kway chap the way I like it. I'm faithful to my food crushes. I'm a one-kway-chap-stall woman. I do eat other kway chap, but reluctantly.

This doesn't mean I stay faithful to the same stall always. I do update my preferences over the years, and move on if something better comes along.

There used to be a yu sheng (raw fish) porridge in Sixth Avenue. I loved its porridge and you tiao. The elderly couple stopped working a year or so ago, and I have not managed to find them again.

Meanwhile, I was introduced to a stall I was unfamiliar with in Tiong Bahru, that had porridge cooked over a charcoal stove, thick and flavourful, with no trace of MSG that I could detect. The clean surroundings, the organised system of taking orders even when the place is packed, and the satisfying taste of that 'chooke', propelled it to the top of my porridge list. My greedy gut, hurt by the demise of the Sixth Avenue porridge, was soon lulled into happy feasting by the Tiong Bahru one.

Familiar food sits easy on the stomach and nestles its way into the heart. Many Singaporeans will say that food forms an important component of what makes this place home. I share that view.

Home to me is the sum of many things. It includes the ties of love and friendship. It includes my physical abode, this space of serenity and greenery that surrounds me as I write this. It also includes the joy of breakfasting on nasi lemak and teh halia, at Adam Road hawker centre, lunching on bak kut teh and steamed mullet at the kopi tiam in Serangoon Road, dinner of herbal soup simmered in giant earthenware jars at Sin Ming, and the occasional supper of char kway teow and orh luak at Berseh food centre.

Some days, I wonder what I will do if these stalls disappear, like my mee pok stall.

But I guess I know I'll survive.

There is so much variety of food choices here. Someone asked me what constituted indigenous food. I thought of all my fave haunts and the range of food I have eaten recently, and replied: 'The essence of Singapore food culture is diversity: diversity at your fingertips.'

Amid all that diversity, though, some things are simply irreplaceable. I mourn that yong tau foo and know it's unlikely I will find its like.

But I still hope to find a bak chor mee pok I can be faithful to. I've tried but not lost my gut to the ones at Balestier, Hong Lim Park, Yio Chu Kang market, Capital Square. Other recommendations are welcome.

If you know where these hawker stalls have decamped to, write to Or tell us about your favourite hawker stalls.

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1 comment:

SGalf said...

In Singapore, it is not just the landscape and buildings that are fast vanishing.

Some of those familiar "taste"that we have grown accustomed to may have gone that way too.

I miss the laksa from my primary school!