IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Hawkers’ best food forward

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 23, 2013

Six new Hawker Masters in various categories were crowned at last night’s Asian Masters Gala Dinner at the S.E.A. Aquarium at Resorts World Sentosa. The annual awards are organised by The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao. REBECCA LYNNE TAN and EUNICE QUEK speak to the vendors

CATEGORY A: MEE REBUS

SELERA KITA

Where: Block 58 New Upper Changi Road, 01-182

Open: 8.30am to 1pm, or whenever it sells out. Closed on Mondays and Fridays

From the moment mee rebus stall Selera Kita opens at 8.30am, a queue of about 10 people forms in front of it. And the queue stays - until the mee rebus is sold out by lunch time.

Fans of the yellow noodles, served in a flavourful spicy-sour gravy, say the queue can be much longer on weekends. Sometimes, it snakes past the other stalls in the hawker centre.

Behind the 35-year-old stall are husband-and-wife team Mr Awang Amir, 64, and Madam Zahara Abu Bakar, 65.

Madam Zahara says she learnt to cook her Peranakan- style mee rebus from an aunt, her father's cousin, who hails from Penang.

The mee rebus gravy here is robust, but not starchy and contains small dried shrimp which add depth to its flavour.

Of the winning mee rebus, Mr Dennis Wee, 61, chairman of real estate agency Dennis Wee Realty and a judge on the panel, says: "The gravy is the most important thing when it comes to good mee rebus. Here, the gravy is not too thick, nor is it too watery - it is just nice."

He adds that the gravy does not stick to the noodles and also does not make the noodles soggy - it is so good that one can slurp up every drop without it feeling too cloying.

Ask Madam Zahara the secret to her mee rebus, and she says with a laugh: "There is no secret. I use steamed prawns and dried prawns in my gravy, and I do not add starch."

Prices here are some of the cheapest in town. Servings of mee rebus here are priced at $1.20, $1.50 and $2 each, and include fried tofu, spring onions, green chilli, fried shallots, half a calamansi and a whole hard-boiled egg.

The couple's three children, aged 38, 36, and 33, hold white-collar jobs - the eldest is a civil servant, while the younger two work in administration - and do not help with the running of the stall. She says: "I'd rather they take up other jobs because they have the opportunity to."

Madam Zahara and her husband make their way to the stall from their HDB flat in Tampines at 6am. It takes 21/2 hours to make the gravy from scratch. She adds: "My husband and I will continue running the stall for as long as we can."

Rebecca Lynne Tan


CATEGORY B: CHINESE ROJAK

HOOVER ROJAK

Where: Block 90 Whampoa Drive Food Centre, 01-06

Open: 11am to 6pm (Thursdays), 11am to 9pm (Fridays to Mondays, and Wednesdays), closed on Tuesdays

With more than 50 years of experience making Chinese rojak, Mr Lim Ngah Chew says that he can whip up the dish with his eyes closed.

The 68-year-old owner of the popular Hoover Rojak says in Mandarin: "I don't need to see what I'm doing anymore. It's all about feeling."

In 1961, the then 16-year-old Lim started his business from a pushcart in old Toa Payoh, which he recalls to be much dirtier, and more "kampong-style".

He received his hawker's licence in 1971 and relocated opposite Hoover cinema (now known as Shaw Plaza) in Balestier Road.

In 1978, he moved to his current location at Whampoa Drive Food Centre.

On learning the recipe from an uncle, Mr Lim says: "Last time, I was very hardworking and learnt very fast. When you're poor, you need to learn everything. In those days, I even had friends to help me push my cart."

His rojak, coated in his homemade prawn paste blend, includes ingredients such as jellyfish and ginger flower, among the usual tau pok and you tiao.

Like clockwork, Lim wakes up at 5am and gets to his stall by 6am to start preparing the ingredients.

He says, with a hearty laugh: "Even if I'm tired or unhappy, when I reach my stall, I feel good again. My doctor tells me not to retire."

The chatty hawker's hope is that his 46-year-old daughter and 40-year-old son - who help out at the stall at night - will take over the business in the future. His wife, 68, also works with him at the stall.

With age catching up, Lim is now content with selling just over 100 plates of rojak in a day. In the past, he could sell up to 200 plates.

So even though business may not be as good as it used to be, it is Lim's regular customers who keep him going.

He says: "My customers have been with me since when my rojak used to cost 10 cents, till now, when it is $3."

Photographer He Zhengbang, 30, says: "The chef takes time to prepare each plate and I enjoy the fragrant peanut sauce. He displays boxes of century eggs at the stall's window, a marketing tactic that works on me because I always add one egg to my rojak."

Eunice Quek


CATEGORY C: NASI BRIYANI

KOOTHURAR

Where: Block 17 Beach Road, Stall No. 6

Open: 7am to 3.30pm, but closed on alternate Tuesdays (it will be closed this Tuesday). Nasi briyani is available from 11am to about 2.30pm, or whenever it sells out

At Koothurar, a Indian-Muslim stall in a coffee shop in Beach Road, Mr Jahabar Mohamed Shareef, 39, and his oldest brother Thamin Ansari, 58, still make nasi briyani with the same herbs and spices their late father had been used from 1960s.

The brothers, who have four other siblings, say the key to fragrant nasi briyani is good-quality ghee and high- grade basmati rice. Their sister and three other brothers, all of whom are in their 40s, are not involved in the business.

The stall serves nasi briyani with chicken, mutton or fish ($5 a plate), of which the mutton briyani is the most popular, Mr Jahabar says.

Everything here is made from scratch - even the masala spice mix for their curries. The closely guarded recipe, which Mr Jahabar has tweaked slightly over the years, contains a list of about 14 different spices in varying quantities.

The fluffy and aromatic rice is flavoured with ghee, and contains onions, ginger, garlic, and herbs such as fresh coriander and mint, among other things.

Their father's stall had been located in a coffee shop in Victoria Street from the 1960s until 1985, when it relocated to its current location at Block 17 Beach Road.

The stall also serves roti prata for breakfast, and plain rice with various dishes throughout the day.

Nasi briyani here is prepared first thing in the morning, and is ready in time for the lunch crowd which starts streaming in at about 11am. The mutton for the briyani, for instance, takes about 11/2 to two hours to cook.

Hawker Masters co-judge Dennis Wee says that, of the three finalists in the nasi briyani category, he particularly enjoyed the version at Koothurar.

He says: "The mutton here is just tender enough - it still has some bite to it, but it is not too tough. The mutton's flavour is also very well balanced and the rice is fragrant. On the whole, this nasi briyani tastes very authentic."

Mr Jahabar, whose wife is a housewife, says winning the award is a tribute to his father. The second-generation owner has two children aged 11 and 13.

He adds: "I am very grateful to our customers - many of them have been coming to our stall for years. On Saturdays and Sundays, we also get families."

Rebecca Lynne Tan


CATEGORY D: FISHBALL NOODLES (SOUP & DRY)

SONG KEE FISHBALL NOODLES

Where: 532 Upper Serangoon Road

Open: 7pm to 2am, or whenever it sells out, Thursdays to Tuesdays, closed on Wednesdays

Like his father, Mr Chua Poh Seng started in the fishball noodles business around age 10.

Now 41, he runs Song Kee Fishball Noodles with his two older brothers - Chua Soo Meng, 44 and Chua Soo Chai, 42. The stall opened in Toa Payoh in 1966, before moving to Jurong East in 1989. It stayed there for about 20 years, before moving to its current location near the Bartley Road junction two years ago.

A bowl of fishball noodles here is priced at $3.50. It includes fishballs, fish dumpling and tau pok stuffed with fish paste. Everything is made from scratch, using only yellowtail fish - even the skins of the fish dumplings.

One of the judges, The Straits Times food critic Wong Ah Yoke, says: "Song Kee's freshly made fishballs have just the right bounciness and a distinct fish flavour. The mee pok is smooth, doesn't stick together and yet is not too hard either.

"The soup version is tasty too and I like the crispy bits of fried lard in it."

Business has been stable, says the youngest Mr Chua. He sells about 400 bowls of their signature fishball noodles a day. His 41-year-old wife, and five children - aged 19 to 11 - help to clean the stall and wash dishes.

His 66-year-old, Mr Chua Keok Sip, father retired two years ago.

Says the son: "My father comes to check on what we are doing - he looks at the ingredients we are using and tastes our food as well. Most importantly, he always reminds us to put our heart into the food we prepare."

Eunice Quek


CATEGORY E: OR LUAK (FRIED OYSTER OMELETTE)

AH HOCK FRIED OYSTER HOUGANG

Where: Block 90 Whampoa Drive Food Centre, 01-54

Open: 12.30 to 11pm daily except Thursdays

Winning foodie accolades - such as being named the best or luak in this year's Hawker Masters awards - gives third-generation owner Raymond Tan of Ah Hock Fried Oyster Hougang the drive to stay in the business.

The stall's history dates back to 1927, when Mr Tan's late grandfather Tan Kee Chong, started selling oyster omelette in makeshift stalls.

The Ah Hock in the stall's name is Mr Tan's father, who got his licence for a hawker stall in Upper Serangoon in the 1960s and took over the business.

After completing his national service in 1990, it was Mr Tan's turn to take over the reins and maintain the family recipe.

The oyster omelette (from $6) uses oysters from Korea - which he says are "fresher and nicer" - and local eggs. To balance the crisp egg with soft starch, his trick is to use flour made with old potatoes. Mr Tan, 44, says: "With our special flour, cooking techniques and recipe, we stand out from the rest of the stalls. Our sambal chilli, as well as the dip that we serve with the oyster omelette are homemade."

Another winning touch: opeh leaves are used to wrap the oyster omelette for takeaway. "The purpose is that when you take it home, the food is still fragrant, hot and not so oily. The omelette remains crispy as well," says the father of four.

Mr Tan's eldest son Marcus, aged 17, is currently helping him at the stall, but his skills are "not perfect" yet, jokes Mr Tan, who is married to a 38-year-old housewife. His youngest child is 19 months old.

He declined to reveal how many plates he sells in a day, just saying that "business is okay".

He adds: "We still have many regular customers from my father's time. We also have local actors who eat here. All these keep us going, and I will continue in the business for as long as I can."

Food consultant Violet Oon, one of the Hawker Masters judges, says Mr Tan's oyster omelette was the clear winner for her. She adds: "The oyster omelette has fragrant wok hei, which is very important. It is flash-fried without being over-crispy, and is not too oily. There is enough flavour with a hint of fish sauce and the oysters are not over-cooked."

Eunice Quek


CATEGORY F: CHENG TNG

YE LAI XIANG HOT & COLD CHENG TNG

Where: Bedok Corner Food Centre, 1 Bedok Road, corner of Upper East Coast and Bedok Roads, Stall No. 31

Open: Noon to 6pm. Closed on Mondays and alternate Thursdays

"Since 1939": Those are the words boldly emblazoned on the lower right corner of the sign above this popular cheng tng stall.

The stall was founded by the late Madam Yap Koo Eng, who used to ply the streets in the East Coast area selling cuttlefish kangkong and, later, cheng tng - a sweet dessert soup. Madam Yap started selling cheng tng in 1939 and, by the late 1940s, she had her son Lim Ah Lek to help sell the cheng tng and her daughter-in-law Susie Wee to prepare it.

Madam Yap died in 1974, aged 69, while Mr Lim died about 41/2 years ago at the age of 81.

These days, Madam Wee, now 82, leaves the running of Ye Lai Xiang Hot & Cold Cheng Tng to her daughter Coco Lim, 58, although she still enjoys overseeing the cooking process.

Madam Wee's younger son Andrew, who used to run the cheng tng stall, died of a heart attack in June this year. Her elder son, Peter, 62, runs the cuttlefish kangkong stall next door.

The cheng tng stall has been located at the food centre for about 30 years, and a bowl of cheng tng starts from $2.

Ms Lim says preparing the ingredients is a tedious task, which includes sunning the dried longans, cutting up the candied winter melon into thin strips and double- boiling the sago. The preparation is spread out over several days.

There are a total of 10 ingredients in the family's traditional cheng tng recipe, including barley, mung beans, sweet potato, ginko nuts and dried persimmon.

Diners and judges say they like it for its subtly sweet flavour that is both thirst-quenching and wholesome.

Mr Joel Lim, 35, a trader, says he has been eating the dessert soup for at least 10 years. Of its flavour, he says: "Many stalls stint on quality ingredients, but here, the dried persimmon gives the soup a distinct flavour that is very refreshing."

On being named a Hawker Master in the cheng tng category, Ms Lim, who received the award on behalf of her mother, says: "My mother is the pillar of our house and all credit should go to her. I am just one of the helpers."

Rebecca Lynne Tan

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 23, 2013

To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to http://www.sphsubscription.com.sg/eshop/