老伴豆花 Lao Ban Soya Beancurd @ Old Airport Road
A visit to Old Aiport Road Food Centre and you would be quick to observe a rather prominent sight, i.e. diners all around carrying plastic bags containing disposable bowls of soyabean curd! And its not just that idiosyncratic one or two, but a concerted act which seems to perpetuate the entire place! Now that made me very curious indeed…
Singaporeans love soya beancurd. “Tau huay” as it is affectionately called here by folks from all races and walks of life, we eat it all the time, and quite literally! Traditionally, it is enjoyed as a breakfast treat piping hot, together with a warm glass of soyabean milk and a 油条 youtiao dough fritter for dunking in. Yet we see OLs queuing for them during lunchtime in the CBD area for a dessert after their midday meal, or as a takeaway for tea break later in the day. And as the day draws to an end, we see folks making a beeline for famous beancurd joints all over the island for communal supper, with friends and family. So you can see now how we truly love tao huay!
“Rochor Beancurd” and “Selegie Beancurd” are some of the more familiar names and have since opened franchaises all over the island. And of course we have Mr Bean and Jolibean (alongside Old Chang Kee of course!) in literally every other mall and shopping centre of the heartlands. Amongst those which have made their way onto the Tau Huay Hall of Fame is surely 老伴豆花 Lao Ban Soya Beancurd.
Lao Ban Soya Beancurd is one of the most iconic hawker delights one can find in Old Airport Road Food Centre (OARFC). It shares the burden, alongside some famous char kway tiao and wantan mee stalls of drawing crowds from all over Singapore to this place, a stone’s throw away from Dakota MRT station. The queues are very long, especially during dinnertime, which means one has to wait before being able to sink your teeth into the soft and wobbly custard. But if you’d already travelled halfway round Singapore just to get here to find cheap and good eats, might as well queue for a while more yeah? In fact, the tau huay craze has spread through OARFC, bringing about no less than another 3 tau huay stalls which opened here to “join in the fun”. One’s just just 2 stalls down the stretch where Lao Ban is! But just how good is it?
Unlike most other tau huay joints in Singapore which offer beancurd to be enjoyed either hot or cold, Lao Ban’s version is served exclusively chilled. In fact, they pride themselves as “the creators of chilled soya beancurd” in OARFC. But this leaves us to wonder what’s so different about the way which Lao Ban Beancurd is made compared to the others. Well, traditionally beancurd is made from 熟石膏 gypsum, which is essentially calcium sulphate. This acts as a coagulant to allow soyabean milk to agglutinate and achieve the soft and silky textures much sought after. Many modern-day tau huay joints use Lactone instead, which is easier to will and produce more stable and consistent results. But those who’d tried Lao Ban’s version and match it against those from the other stalls would be quick to notice the difference in texture. And many others have gone about to experiment and attempt to replicate Lao Ban’s tau huay at home, with the use of another staple coagulant in dessert making – gelatine. The texture of gelatine is all too familiar, as well as the cooled setting temperature required… it all makes perfect sense now.
Lao Ban’s tau huay has another unique characteristic, its use of sugar. Unlike other conventional tau huay stalls where the syrup, which provides the dish with all its sweet dessert-desired qualities, is added as a “topping”, Lao Ban cooks their sugar into the beancurd itself. While attempting to provide a more homogenised flavour profile, it can also be a drawback, depriving the taster of a chance to control the level of sweetness to one’s individual liking. I do know of folks who prefer their beancurd to be less sweet so as to allow the true flavours and aroma of soya to come through more prominently. Also, there are even folks who would prefer to add salt to their soyabean milk instead for a more savory palate sensation than sweet! The savory soya bean milk is then generously anointed over the beancurd to increase the overall “wholesomeness” of the dessert. Again, Lao Ban does not provide the “service” of adding soya bean milk onto their beancurd, which is the style of eating tau huay de facto for some people. Having said that, all these “limitations” seem not to have deter Singaporeans from enjoying a good bowl of tau huay from Lao Ban. Well, the long queues bear true testament to just exactly how popular they are!
Another interesting quality which I found in Lao Ban’s tau huay, is the layer of fresh beancurd skin which has set over the surface as it cools. This likens the effect in another popular chinese dessert, “Double Skin Steamed Milk” 雙皮奶. In other aspects of chinese cuisine, the skin would be carefully removed and made into 腐竹 fu zhok or 腐皮 fu pei/tau kee while boiling freshly squeezed soya bean milk, to be used in other dishes, like 腐竹白果薏米糖水 or cooked into 杂菜 zhup chye. But as Lao Ban’s tau huay is made to set in individual plastic serving bowls instead of gigantic wooden barrels as they are prepared traditionally, tasters get to “enjoy” that layer of beancurd skin as well. One who finds it jarring could of course skim it away, like how other tau huay joints would have done it, but I personally find that it lends the dessert a rather rustic and original touch.
Prima facie, I did find the texture of Lao Ban’s tau huay rather interesting, and most certainly different from what I’m accustomed to eating. But having tried it several times, I still find myself drawn back to the more traditional textures and flavours of tao huay which are conventionally made and what I’m used to. Would I still eat Lao Ban’s tau huay? Of course I would! It does taste very good indeed. But would I go by a “try this and you won’t eat others anymore” as how some others had sworn by it? Most definitely not. Perhaps old habits die hard.
Main stall: 51 Old Airport Road, #01-127 Old Airport Road Food Centre
Other branches: 1 Kadayanallur Street #01-91 Maxwell Food Centre,
#B1-01C One Raffles Place OUB Centre