Tag Archive | Memory

Two Bowls of Prawn Mee

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A bowl of prawn noodles at Beach Road: prawns, beansprouts, fried onions, thick vermicelli noodles and blanched water spinach.

“The reason why I like this so much is because it’s the same taste I used to have when I was a child,” my dad told me. “When I was a small boy and this man’s father was selling prawn mee in my neighbourhood.”

My parents and I were hunched over a pale wooden table, small wisps of steam rising into our faces from the two lime-green bowls of prawn noodles sitting in front of us. Unusually enough, we weren’t at a hawker centre. Right at the back of a nondescript shop lot sandwiched between a swathe of tarmac and a collection of bakeries and cafes sat a pair of food stalls, separated from the entrance by an expanse of identical tables and stools. It was testament to the amount of prestige Blanco Court Prawn Noodles had earned among Singapore’s makan kakis (‘foodies’ in popular slang) over the decades. Originating along Merchant Street, the stall became one of many in the eponymous shopping complex along North Bridge Road (several of its neighbours went on to become legendary food stalls in their own right), and its owner managed to earn enough to rent a small block along Beach Road which is only shared with a drinks stall and one selling ngoh hiang (Chinese five-spice meat rolls).

Prawn noodles are a common sight in Singaporean hawker centres. Many foodies attest that it’s the broth which makes or breaks them. The broth from Blanco Court Prawn Noodles appeared thin, but every mouthful seethed with a strong prawn flavour – the way it should be, my father asserted, from hours of cooking prawn shells down until every bit of flavour was unlocked. Some would say the prawns looked insipid, being unlike the full, bouncy variants some serve in other hawker stalls. Yet others could argue that the prawns were not the point of the dish. The other components were only subsidiary: the beansprouts that snapped between your teeth, the tender strings of wilted water spinach, the splash of fried onions on top for a burst of fragrance. It was just the broth that mattered.

My gold standard for prawn noodles was different.

It was often bundled in a plastic takeout bag, or in turquoise plastic bowls. The white vermicelli noodles are much thinner, and instead of simmering in a bowl of broth they were mixed in with blobs of spicy shrimp paste and dried bird’s eye chillis. The noodles wouldn’t come with the heads on (a pity, because I always enjoy sucking the juice out from them!) but made up for it with a few nuggets of pork lard, crispy and utterly toothsome. I would never eat the vegetables that came with it, but spend my Saturday mornings sitting amid the bustle at Ghim Moh Food Centre, or else slurping up my noodles on a lazy day at home in front of the television.

“Even the one at Ghim Moh is an innovation,” my father has remarked. “Then when they try to innovate it doesn’t taste the same. Blanco Court still has the real stuff.” But what if what you’d known as the ‘real stuff’, the stuff you’d grown up with, was what another person had regarded as a perversion of the flavours he’d known? And that’s something I’ll have to feel for with my tastebuds, in every spoonful of prawn broth.

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Four Years On

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The latest addition to the Grassroots Reading Room.

Going to college was a significant change for me, and regrettably I let this blog lie fallow. Yet my new life experiences have exposed me to different audiences who would receive my original purpose – that of highlighting the lesser-seen and heard-of in this island city of mine.  Continue reading

Christmas, and Ghosts of the Past

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This year, my family decided to stage an old-school Christmas party. My mother dug out the 20-year-old bottles of Coke she’d tucked away in cold storage (yes, the Coke had been in the bottles that long). My sister bought some tiffin carriers – traditionally used to carry and store food for picnics – home from Thailand, laying them next to our old and slightly greyed blue-and-white porcelain rice bowls. We went out buying haw flakes, iced gems, White Rabbit candy, and ice pops (segmented plastic tubes filled with flavoured ice); all popular retro snacks in Singapore, topped off with a small pack of sour dried plums which are a mainstay of so many traditional candy stores.

As we were decorating, it occurred to me that I hadn’t known of many other peoples who cherish the past with as much vigour as Singaporeans. The Christmas party theme was a blast, mainly for the fact that it provided the adults with a much-adored blast from the past. There are even some of the young (myself included) who lament the passing of old sights and tastes from the past half-century, attesting to the breakneck pace of development, which has benefitted our country and also left it with a craving for simpler times past. Everywhere, nostalgia appears to be a prime sticking point in local discourse, even more so than in other developed countries. It explains the main thrust of marketing strategies for food outlet chains and tourist attractions, the proliferation of shops selling 1950s-Singapore-themed merchandise, and the fondness with which locals search out the shops selling their favourite pig’s ear biscuits or tutu kueh before they vanish forever.

Am I clinging on to the past too much sometimes, I wonder. And yet, there is a charm and a beauty to things from the past that can’t seem to be replicated by their modern counterparts. Perhaps it was their origin in an era where we all had more time to stop and smell the roses. But for now I shall continue to search down and honour the fast-vanishing landmarks, traditions and material culture of this island. Even if they don’t appear to be as relevant to our collective urban consciousness today, they can still provide a crystallised window into a remarkably different side of the island.

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A Mason jar filled with White Rabbit milk candy: a sweet milk-flavoured treat wrapped in a layer of edible rice paper and then in its characteristic plastic outer covering. Behind it is a jar of iced gems, which are small round biscuits each topped with a streak of coloured sugar.

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Another jar of haw flakes – little round discs made out of dried hawthorn fruit.

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An assortment of different types of tiffin carriers. The tall one in the middle was used as a thermos, while the red and green ones to the right are layered with different circular compartments for food.