Among the numerous popular hawker favorites, char kway teow has a special place in the hearts of many. It is a traditional fried noodle dish whipped up by street hawkers who gathered at the now-demolished Ellenborough Market just across Clarke Quay along Singapore River. The area was also a well known enclave of the early Teochew settlers who knew this place as tsah tsun tau 柴船头, owing to the provision of fuel-related goods like firewood, charcoal and kerosene in this area. At night, some of these hawkers take to the nearby old Thong Chai Medical Institution 同济医院 for the supper crowd who flocked here after a session of tua hee 大戏 aka Chinese wayang opera nearby or a movie produced by Cathay Organisation at Majestic cinema just a short stretch down Eu Tong Sen Road. But as peddling of street food waned in the 1980s as it became outlawed, gone were the days when these illegal hawkers had to scurry and run away from the health inspectors, colloquially known as 地牛 “tee gu“. Together with the establishment of hawker centres around the island, local delights like char kway teow spread to the heartlands and became everyone’s favorite as well.
For many of us, food is not just something we consume merely to sate our physical needs for survival. Extending far beyond that, food is what we enjoy with our loved ones, friends and family, as a vehicle to promote solidarity, camaraderie and togetherness. Food is what invokes and invigorates our senses, establishes a communal experience which evolves irrevocably into a shared memory, or an identity that eventually gets woven into a group’s rich history and cultural heritage. In short, food provides for many of us, a glimpse of our past and acts as an intangible extension into our future. Often times, such food are likely to be signature dishes unique to a cuisine or synonymous to a community. Yet food that possess such prowess and bestowed with such a mission isn’t necessarily elaborated or complicated. It is often the simplest things that leave a lifelong impression and sometimes, even an everlasting legacy.
I remember enjoying my first bowl of 四神汤 Si Shen Soup about 10 years back during my initial trips to Taiwan. It was the period before Chinese New Year and my friends brought us to 寧夏夜市 before visiting 迪化街 for the Chinese New Year bazaar. Just gotten off the plane, we hadn’t eaten dinner so my Taiwanese friends suggested going to 阿桐阿寶四神湯 located near the night market first. Being largely a “herbal soup”, it tasted rather plain and smooth, with a lingering sweetness in the mouth. Void of pungent odours and bitter aftertaste, the flavours of Si Shen Soup defies what I had expected Chinese herbal soups are traditionally like. The soup was a relief, not only against the fattiness of the bak chang and large steamed pork buns we had, it also helped to warm our constitution amidst the cold and rainy weather.
Haven’t had Teochew-styled steamed fish in quite a while. This used to be such a common and popular fare on our dining table, but since my mum passed on and my sister moved out after she got married, this dish stopped appearing for quite a while. Just two weeks back I saw my friend Hock Chai from Zi Zai Restaurant in Penang featuring this dish on his facebook and sent me craving to have a taste of it again.