The big breakfast buffet

by Goh Bee Lian, Jul 15, 2002 | Destinations: Singapore

When I have been travelling for some time, one of the things I enjoy most when I am back home is having breakfast at the the food center near my home. Clad in casual shorts and t-shirt, feet in rubber flip-flops, I descend from my 16th floor apartment in the interminably slow elevator, to mingle with hundreds of my neighbors who live in the same housing estate.

The market and food-center is a hive of activity on most mornings. The large market hall with open sides houses rows of stalls selling chilled meat, poultry, seafood, vegetables, flowers and fruit. A smaller section has little shops offering groceries like canned food, dried foodstuffs such as onions, garlic, dried shrimps and anchovies, nuts, pickled and preserved vegetables, and more.

At one end of the market hall is the food center, commonly referred to as the "hawker center". There are several rows of small stalls, enclosed by tiled walls up to 4 1/2 feet in height on 3 sides, where stallholders cook the food on the spot and serve it piping hot to their customers.

The offerings of the food center beat the breakfast buffet spread in any fancy hotel. If you are there with friends or family, you look around for a table with enough empty seats to accommodate your group. The tables with round backless stools rooted to the floor are all numbered. Most of the time, you end up sharing a table with complete strangers. Once you have decided on your table, all members take note of the table number and wander off up or down the rows of stalls to take their pick, leaving one member to stake your claim to the seats.

Some stalls adopt a "self-service" policy, which means you have to wait at the stall until your food is ready, and take it back to your table. Many still bring the food to you. At those stalls, you place your order, inform the stallholder of your table number, then go off to another stall to order yet more food, or drinks, or head back to your table to wait for your meal to arrive.

The food center is abuzz with noise and activity. The chatter of the customers bounce off the tiled floors, walls and roof to merge into a hum of noise churned and stirred by the powerful sweeping fans mounted high on pillars throughout the food center. Frying slices clank against big, heavy woks as the vendors stir and fry at great speed. The sizzle of garlic is followed by the aroma wafting up to hit you in the face as you walk past the stall. Whether you are seated at a table or walking anywhere near the food center, different aromas swirl around, teasing your senses to identify the fragrance, conjuring up mouth-watering memories of favorite dishes tasted in the past, and enticing you to the stall better than any other advertisement can.

The food centers, found in most public housing estates, offer something which is close to the hearts of many Singaporeans: food that is "cheap and good". What a luxury it is to be able to get freshly cooked food without having to pay restaurant prices. The surroundings reflect the no-frills approach.

This is certainly not breakfast at the Ritz. The formica-topped tables are sturdy and functional, but will not win any beauty contests. Workers pushing trolleys clear away used bowls and plates, dumping leftovers into pails on the trolleys, and give the tables a quick wipe with a damp cloth. It doesn't take long for you to realize that different stalls use plastic bowls or plates of different colors or shapes and sizes. The cleaning workers know which bowls or plates to bring back to which stall, throwing them unceremoniously with a loud clatter into pails left in front of the stalls for washing. Thank goodness for melamine. The drinks stalls identify their mugs by painting the base of the mugs in different colors, or by means of colored plastic tape around the handles.

The food stalls start business early in the morning, from about 6.00 am. They cater to the working population who stop by to have breakfast before heading to work. Older folks who are early risers make their way to the food center for a hot breakfast as well as to meet with friends to chit-chat for hours over a cup of coffee, or to read the daily paper. Such a luxury is only possible on weekdays, as the food center is so packed on weekends that one often finds people standing around waiting for a seat, so the tendency on weekends is to leave once one has finished eating.

As the morning wears on, the housewives appear at the food center to eat, bearing plastic bags of their purchases of fish, meat and vegetables from the wet market. They run into neighbors and friends, and form little groups at the tables, exchanging gossip, comparing their purchases, sharing with their friends what they will be preparing for dinner that evening for their families. There are good-natured protests as each vies to pay for coffee for the whole group. They exchange news about other mutual friends, recipes, stories of the old days, stories of what their children and grandchildren are up to.

I enjoy the casual friendliness of "sharing" a meal with others. Most of the older folks are completely comfortable, chatting away even with a stranger in their midst. The younger ones are more circumspect, and tend to clam up when there is a stranger at the table, or speak in hushed tones.

Depending on the food they serve, the stalls vary their opening hours. About three-quarters of the stalls sell food that is eaten from breakfast till lunch time. Others start in the afternoon and close at around 10.00 pm, or when their supplies run out.

There are some perennial favorites for breakfast. Such as the "economical bee-hoon", or fried rice vermicelli. There are at least 5 such stalls, and yet there are often queues in front of those stalls. At S$0.50 (1 US$ = S$1.76) per serving, it is an inexpensive way to fill the stomach. The noodles are simply fried with garlic, soy sauce and some bean sprouts. You can pay extra to add some side dishes to go with the noodles. Such as fried egg, fish cake, a slice of spam, chicken wing or cabbage at prices ranging from S$0.30 to S$1.00. One of the vendors told me that she wakes up at 4.30 am every morning to start preparing the food for sale. It takes up to an hour to fry all the side dishes like the chicken wing, eggs, etc. The first customers stop by around 6.00 am, and they are usually sold out by noon. The noodles are cooked in batches. The rice noodles are softened by soaking in water, then drained in large colanders ready for frying whenever the tray of noodles in the glass display case is sold out. This ensures a steady supply of hot, freshly fried noodles.

Other types of noodles are just as popular at breakfast time. Stir-fried with vegetables, sliced fish cakes, dried Chinese sausages and black soy sauce. Scalded in hot water, garnished with shrimps, sliced pork, vegetables, then tossed in a dark sauce and served with a small bowl of soup. Scalded and drenched in a spicy thick gravy, topped with a hard-boiled egg, diced fried tofu and chives. Each order of food is prepared, one plate at a time. The vendors keep their cool remembering the customers' preferences. Less chilli, extra chilli, no bean sprouts, extra bean sprouts, light soy sauce instead of dark, etc.

Among the Malay food, "nasi lemak" is surely one of the favorites for breakfast. Rice cooked in coconut milk, flavored with a twist of pandan (screwpine) leaves, some slices of ginger and a dash of salt, with a rich, sweet-savory flavor. Done the right way, the rice has a slightly chewy texture. It is served with a fish or two (depending on the size) seasoned with turmeric and fried to a crisp; deep-fried dried anchovies with groundnuts; a small piece of omelette fried with onions and chilli slices; some slices of cucumber; and a dollop of home-made sweet chilli sauce made with dried red chillis, lots of onion, tarmarind juice and sugar. A set meal for S$2.00.

The nasi lemak stall offers a selection of sweet cakes made from rice, rice flour, tapioca and lots of coconut milk. There are also deep fried curry puffs, with fillings of potato cooked in curry powder, or of sardines with chilli and onions.

This is certainly not fare for stomachs unaccustomed to spicy, fried stuff early in the morning. I remember a German colleague wrinkling his nose as a group of us were digging into our nask lemak with gusto, and wondering out loud "How can you eat dead fish so early in the morning?" The same way others consume milk gone bad, I guess. Which is what yoghurt or cheese is to many Asians.

If you're into "bread", you can try the roti prata offered by the Indian vendors. It is a flat pancake made by stretching balls of dough, well greased with ghee, into thin, elastic sheets by skillful twirling. These are then folded into squares or twisted into a circle, which is then pressed flat with the fingers. The square or round pancakes are fried to a golden crisp, and served with a small plate of curry. Besides the plain prata, you can also have your prata with egg. The vendor stretches the paper-thin dough sheet over the worktop. The ghee holds the thin sheet of dough in place. He then breaks an egg on the middle of the sheet and jabs the egg with his fingers to break the yolk and spread it around. Then he pulls the edges of the sheet inwards to form a square, enveloping the egg filling, and lifts the floppy piece with the egg sloshing around inside and eases it carefully onto the hot, greased griddle.

You get a fork and spoon to tear the prata apart and dunk it into the curry. Hardly anyone eats prata with their hands any more. When I was a kid, we used to love eating prata with our fingers, tearing the hot pancake into shreds and soaking them in the curry. By the end of the meal, our hands, and often half our faces, would be yellow with curry. Instead of curry, we sometimes ate the prata with granulated sugar.

It is hard work, but one senses in the vendors a sense of pride at being their own bosses. But as part of the price we all pay for "progress", one wonders if the next generation will consider it worth their while to work such long hours doing physically demanding work which brings in less money than a clerk would earn while working in air-conditioned comfort. I hear the older vendors complaining about aches and pains, and wondering how long they can continue running the business. Most have invested in their children's education, making sure that their children would have more career options than they did. When that happens it may well be the demise of these friendly neighborhood food centers.

As it is, many kids nowadays clamor for breakfast at McDonald's, where they get to sit in air-conditioned comfort, as well as collect the many plastic toys that the chain is perpetually coming out with. They will grow up and one day find their childhood food memories are the same as those of other kids who grew up in the 121 countries where McDonald's 30,000+ restaurants are located. For them, coffee would come with fancy foreign names served by trendy young barristas in a paper cup with a Starbucks logo at S$3.50 a shot. Who wants a S$0.60 cup of Indonesian coffee served by an arthritic auntie in a noisy food center?

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