Dearest Fruit of my Loins,
According to Google Maps, it’d take us 12 hours to get from Canberra International Airport to within whiffing distance of the hawker centre that nourished me through my growing years and beyond. It remains the nearest hawker centre to my childhood home. In its bosom, I learnt how to cross a street all on my own and order takeaway for my mum and I. I learnt how to use my manners and pluck up the courage to ask for extra chilli — nevermind my crap Chinese intonation. I observed unwritten boundaries regarding drink stall territory, heard the neighbourhood gossip, and was in turn gossiped about now and then. I know about the last thanks to Teresa from Teresa’s Hairdressing because she gossips about everybody and reveals all her sources. She’d make both a formidable and terrible journo.
The old timers never knew my name. I only ever called them all Uncle and Auntie. We had a bond anyway. If they’re alive and still cooking, we have it still.
This was where boyfriends, and then husband, and then children came to understand what I grew up loving to eat, and it’s the pilgrimage I make as soon as I can whenever I return home. It’s a rite of passage to arrive at Changi Airport on a Friday night and return on Saturday morning for my Ipoh Hor Fun. There’s nothing else like it in all the world — not even, I suspect, in Ipoh, Malaysia. For over fifty years, they’ve made the same dish over and over and over: a slow-cooked braised chicken mixed with two other slow-cooked secret broths topped over silky white rice noodles and served with a chilli sauce that I can never quite replicate but always endeavour to. That family has fed four generations of my family: my maternal grandmother, my mother, me, and my daughter.
My mother — your Grandma Singapore — eventually became their financial advisor. If I travel home alone and breakfast there, they always ask if I’d brought you along this trip, hoping to catch a glimpse. We don’t know each other well… just enough to care.
Char Kway Teow isn’t Char Kway Teow without cockles, kids. And the dish has to be dry but not too dry, with a smokiness that can only come from a cast iron wok tossed deftly on serious high flame. You can’t get it cooked with pork lard anymore, but that’s the other secret ingredient that sets the good apart from the obscenely great.
In the ’90s, there used to be this Char Kway Teow rage which originated in the East — and that version was wet and gloppy and an abomination to all things holy and righteous about CKT. I had it once because an old boyfriend made me. Highly, highly overrated (like many things about East Singapore) and the rage obviously hasn’t endured decades on.
Growing up, I used to get my CKT from the stall in the middle section of the hawker centre. Single cook — a cross-eyed guy my mother had slight qualms getting our CKT from because he looked like a shorter, stouter, more cross-eyed version of my father. His CKT wasn’t great but I loved it all the same, partly because he looked like a shorter, stouter, more cross-eyed version of my father. He also used pork lard, Singapore government’s healthy eating, healthy living campaigns be damned. His was therefore objectively better than the lady’s at the back section of the hawker centre, who always piled on a thick layer of choy sum on the top so it overwhelmed everything. My mother preferred her version, in part because vegetables in CKT assuages dietary guilt like lettuce in a greasy quarter pounder. I also suspect it partly had to do with single women sticking together. Choy Sum-Saturated CKT lady eventually married a rich businessman, closed shop and moved to Hong Kong, according to Teresa from Teresa’s Hairdressing.
CKT man eventually had to have his leg amputated because of his diabetes and then sold his business to a young, earnest man who cannot char his kway teow to save his livelihood. I tried and tried and tried to like his CKT for old time’s sake, but when the Newton Circus Char Kway Teow moved to Mei Ling Hawker Centre, that was it. Here, finally, was the CKT as God intended. It is seriously, seriously *kiss fingertips*. Tony has had it quite a few times and it’s like Singapore Laksa: once you’ve had the ‘Katong’ version, you cannot eat any other Laksa from Australia. Because what would be the point?
Speaking of thick and gloppy, Lor Mee is a dying art — a hawker dish from a bygone era that is seldom found anywhere now, let alone mastered. I don’t know how to describe its taste except it’s a thick, dark, savoury, tangy gravy slathered on a bed of linguine-looking noodles topped with ngo hiang, fish cake, hard boiled egg, and too much garlic for a safe first date. The Lor Mee lady at Mei Ling Food Centre has long since retired, but she’s the only one I’ve ever encountered who adds these almost teeth-breaking deep-fried dough bits that just WORK like macadamia with chocolate. I’ve never worked out what they’re properly called except to point at the tray of them and beg for more. Lor Mee Auntie referred to them as ‘kroke kroke’ to me once, which is like calling a dog a woof-woof but the onomatopoeia of jaws joyfully disintegrating stuck for years since. Unfortunately, I can’t exactly go to a new Lor Mee stall and expect to be understood with a straight face. I don’t know if Lor Mee Auntie is still alive. I expect the drink stall people on her row (who used to be my primary-school mates) could tell me.