I set myself a food challenge since I had a few days back in Singapore. Try tasty food from as wide a spectrum as possible, all of which must come from new stalls, eateries, cafes or restaurants to me. Rather than go chornologically I decided to cluster the individual experiences according to the establishment. Today, I revisit Singapore’s famous Hawker Stalls at the massive Maxwell Food Centre
It would be a great disservice to my stomach if I had stopped by just a few hawker stalls in three food centres and called it quits. There are so many food treasures in just those three, and then there are almost 120 hawker/food centres in Singapore. I’d barely re-scratched the surface, I was heading back. But where? Following in the theme of this food challenge I decided to go to a food market that would be extremely accessible to tourist – Maxwell Food Centre. After today, you’ll probably wonder why only the Chicken Rice is famous.
Located opposite the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in the Chinatown district, Maxwell Food Centre caters primarily to the office crowd that swarms upon it during lunch to get their meal. Because of its price-sensitive clientele, the hawker centre tends to also price their food at ranges that the average office worker would find acceptable. No middle range cafe food here, its all about good, affordable and quick in this place.
Zhen Zhen Porridge @ Maxwell Food Centre
Most people think of porridge and congee as baby food and sick people food, I think of it as comfort food. Nothing beats a good silky bowl of congee, the rice broken into a smooth and consistent gruel, with some chinese raw fish and soya sauce. It is unpretentious yet complex, filling but light on calories, tasty and healthy too. And unlike food fads, this is a dish that is cheap and long lasting.
The porridge I am talking about is southern Chinese porridge, and unlike those common in Europe (made of oats and generally sweet), Chinese porridge is made of broken rice and is always savoury. There are three types of Chinese porridge Teochew, Hokkien and Cantonese, the last more often called congee. What differentiates the three is the brokenness off the rice, which means how long it is cooked for. Teochew porridge is mostly cooked rice with thick water (the rice being boiled in the water for a good ten minutes of so), Hokkien porridge is served up with more broken rice although you can still see the rice (boiling time around 30 minutes to an hour), Cantonese congee is perhaps the most labour intensive and is served with the completely broken rice in a thick soup.
And the place that does the best job, which I was to later find out as I wrote this article, is Zhen Zhen at Maxwell Food Centre. We arrived in the morning, just as the rain poured on the streets of the city. It was the perfect day for porridge. The stall didn’t look like anything special, a yellow signboard with large words spelling out exactly what they sell, a fierce looking stall owner staring you down as you contemplate what to buy. There was barely a queue, nothing to hint at how amazing it was.
So we went to buy (I know its not the best way to think, but usually, if the stall is fronted by a few old people doing the cooking, its relatively good. This strategy hasn’t led me wrong too often).
The stall has been running for almost 40 years, and is considered the best cantonese congee among hawker stalls in Singapore. I didn’t know that, I just knew that the price of SGD 3 for a small bowl of congee and 50 cents more for an egg was awesome (SGD 3.50, USD 2.65, EUR 2.15). Unlike popular Cantonese restaurants that offer a whole pheltora of ingredients in their congee, this humble stall only has two, fish and chicken. We went for the fish.
A good bowl of cantonese porridge is usually served with raw fish – or Yusheng. Yusheng is basically a raw fish salad, popular with people from southern China. While there is a very popular version that is used for the Lunar New Year, the yusheng that I am refering too is extremely simple – raw fish slices with chili and ginger to garnish and drizzled with sesame oil for extra flavour. The commonly used fish in Singapore is the wolf herring. Unfortunately many stalls, including this one, stopped selling yusheng in 2015 after a spate of food poisoning incidents occurred while led to the National Environment Agency imposing stricter requirements and rules on the preparation of raw fish at hawker stalls. 😦
It’s perhaps dishes like this where photographs fail to do a good job at showing how good it was, but it was good. Porridge on its own doesn’t have too much flavour, so the flavour comes from the preparation with the other dishes and it cannot hide poor quality raw ingredients. The fish was fresh and soft, the porridge was silky and smooth, the dish was savoury. I can’t recommend it enough, so I’ll let this food blogger above do a more detailed food review.
Popo & Nana’s Delights @ Maxwell Food Centre
We talk a lot in Singapore about how multicultural and multiracial we glow at how much of a food haven our city is, but if there is one thing this food haven doesn’t do a good job in, its in providing good affordable Pernakan (apart from Laksa that is) and Eurasian food. Check out my older articles about the Peranakan and Eurasian heritage in Singapore. There are a few eateries in Singapore that sell good Peranakan and Eurasian food, but their prices are not friendly. The most expensive but high quality Peranakan and Eurasian restaurants that I know as True Blue,The Blue Ginger as well as Quentin‘s, but their prices are too high for my wallet. There are mid-ranged options such as there is Makko Teck Neo that sells Peranakan food at affordable cafe prices (approximately SGD 10-14 per person) and Mary’s Kafe that sells Eurasian set lunches at a shade under SGD 10, but even then I can’t do these prices everyday, I need something cheaper.
And I had given up finding anything except at friends home’s when I get invited over for Christmas open houses.
So it was with great surprise that I stumbled upon a stall called Popo & Nana’s Delights. The stall was newer than most, being started only in 2015 by a middle aged brother and sister team. They have both Peranakan and Eurasian ancestry and so the name Popo and Nana is a tribute to their Peranakan Popo and Eurasian Nana on either side of the family.
It wasn’t the storefront that caught my attention, its white sign board did actually make it less appealing that the other stalls around, it was the words Peranakan and Eurasian food that caught my eye. It was my first time seeing Peranakan and Eurasian food sold in Singapore. I had to check it out.
The stall was selling only four dishes that day. I later found out that they only sell four different dishes everyday and they write it on their Facebook Page. Each dish costs SGD 6 (USD 4.53, EUR 3.70) and comes with a soup, rice and some vegetables on the side. It does come on the higher side for hawker food but to be fair to them the quantity of meat is quite large. I ordered Nonya Babi Tempra and Eurasian Fish Moolie.
Babi Tempra is a pork with lime and dark soy sauce, so you get a rich fatty piece of pork with the sweetness of soy tempered with the refreshing cut of lime. It was nice, a complete change from the light porridge and a nice one too.
Fish Moolie is obviously fish, made with a spicy and sweet curry adopted from south Indian Kerala style Fish Moli.
I thought it was nice, and had that good home cooked flavour. The reviews at our table were mixed, as it was in the video, for me it was good simply because these dishes are so rare to find already so something with large portions, good home cooked flavours and still affordable prices is a winner in my book.
Ah Tai Hainanese Chicken Rice & Tian Tian Chicken Rice @ Maxwell Food Centre
Now this is the reason why everyone goes to Maxwell Food Centre. By everyone, I mean tourists. The food centre was not popular with tourist until chefs like Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsay heaped praise on the stall. That stall is Tian Tian Chicken Rice and it sells perhaps the national dish. These chefs tasted Tian Tian’s food in the early 2010s, during more simple times and even then many others had disagreed with them that Tian Tian was where the chicken gods graced Chicken Rice.
How times have changed.
Singaporeans are serious about food, so you can imagine the surprise when news broke in 2012 that there was a split in Tian Tian. The main chef who made the stall popular (brother to the original founder) had a fierce argument with the new boss (his niece) and was later sacked by the boss and had set up a stall two units away in the same place called Ah Tai.
It was essentially Chicken Rice wars.
I think they are both good, although if I’m honest I have a soft spot for the underdog, so this recommendation is simply one for you to read and try both out. Both just queue at Tian Tian, order the same dish from both (around SGD 3.50, USD 2.65, EUR 2.15 per plate) and decide for yourself!
75 57 Peanuts Soup @ Maxwell Food Centre
It cost a dollar (USD 0.75, EUR 0.62) for dessert. The stall was literal, it just said peanut soup and had the stall number next to it. But it’s not the thought in the name that matters, a rose by another other name…
We had two soups at a dollar each, most of these soups are cantonese in style and are usually served with peanut balls (called locally as Ah Boling, and in proper mandarin as tangyuan) but at this stall the soups are so good and so flavourful that you don’t need the peanut balls at all.
They also have two other soups, red bean and mung bean soup. This third generation hawker has only three soups, but the standards is miles above what you would find elsewhere – surprised me thats for sure.
We also bought brought home some amazing Malay desserts and spied some craft beers (yes you read that right) being brewed…
But this article has gone on long enough, now you need to go down and check it out!
P.S: You might notice that I had posted many videos from one particular Singapoream food vlogger – Gregory Leow. I think he does some great authentic and well researched reviews but is really underrated maybe because he is new. I don’t know him and I visited these places before I came to know of his vlogs. I just am a fan of his work and it was a happy coincidence that he happens to have reviews of all the stalls I tried in my Maxwell Food Centre run. Helps that I generally agree with his review of the food, meaning our palates are similar so hey, maybe he’ll recommend something cool that I haven’t tried when I next go back to Singapore.
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