19th Nov 2014
Post By Mu Yao
Singapore has seen a bit of a wave of nostalgia coming about, especially in the wake of the SG50 celebrations leading up to next year. It's not new — in a country where the only constant is change, the national consciousness is particularly prone to looking back in time to remind ourselves of any semblance of shared experiences and memories we have had. The process is both heartwarming and cathartic — a throwback to a time where things were simpler and life was less overwhelming.
The 90s, was such a decade for me. This was the decade where I saw my childhood years whiz past.
Walking through Tanglin Halt is like entering a time warp of sorts. There is a unfettered, strangely quintessential feel — home businesses abound, as with old school provision shops like Thin Huat (below), all add to the feeling that you are walking through a "picture conversation" scene from your primary school PETS textbook.
What PETS textbook? What "picture conversation"?
|Image credit: Jeremysng.wordpress.com|
|Image credit: http://adpasar.sg/listing/1290508345|
Yeah. Remember now?
The warm feeling of nostalgia came back as I smelt the aroma of tau sar piah from the old school neighbourhood bakery, hearing the raucous chatter and laughter shared amongst a group of Indian and Chinese men over bottles of old-school ABC stout. Further down, the piercing, shrill laughter — in their bowl shaped haircuts and plain-white singlets — filled the rainy evening as they played catch with colorful plastic ice pops in their hands. This was the Singapore I remembered as I grew up. The heartlands in the 90s, with the old school Econ minimart at the corner to boot.
Zhong Hao and I were actually in the area wanting to try the laksa/chicken rice at Tanglin Halt Hawker Centre that is apparently very good, but alas, twas closed. So by chance, we found this very old-school looking coffeeshop/tze char stall called Guan Kim Restaurant right beside it.
Old school blue tiles. Check. Red plastic stools. Check. CRT Television. Check. Ah peks and Ah ceks walking at the TV. Check. Locals from 4 different races (Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasians) in this coffeeshop. Check.
This was the sort of socially constructed yet colourfully diverse way of life Singaporeans growing up in the 80s/90s were familiar with.
Zhong Hao immediately remarked that this would make a very good film set. I agree. The plastic bright orange cutlery/bowls/plates, with the wooden round tables... This was the kind of coffee shops that were really common in the late 80s - early 90s where I grew up. Food was simple, cheap and good.
I like the fact there was also an ordered chaos around the place. Fresh vegetables and ingredients are haphazardly placed everywhere, and felt like a place you could hang out freely in your slippers and shorts without getting judged. This was homely.
And I haven't seen these old-school red chairs at a coffeeshop for a long while now. Memories.
We ordered the Salted Vegetable + Tofu Soup/咸菜豆腐汤 ($5) and the portion was definitely big enough for 3 people to share comfortably. They came with tiny soup bowls, and definitely didn't scrimp on any ingredients. It had a familiar taste of your mum's cooking — savoury, slightly tart (due to the tomatoes and the salted vegetables) but definitely the sort of thing you find comforting drinking on a cold, rainy Friday evening.
The soup's ingredients included fresh fish slices, sotong, prawns, spring onion, carrots, tomatoes, tofu and salted vegetables. The fish had a light sweetness to it.
I used to eat this alot when I was a child, especially on those weekends where I would go out to eat with my granny. This was Sweet Potato Leaves fried with Sambal ($6) and considering the portion, was very reasonably priced. The sambal had a nice kick to it, and the soft vegetables had no earthy taste (thankfully).
We ordered a small portion of Har Cheong Gai/Prawn Paste Chicken ($8), a staple at any tze char stall. We were really pleasantly surprised at their definition of "small", which came with 8 solid pieces of chicken. This is Singapore's take on the awesome chicken wings — from the putrid-smelling prawn paste. As every tze char stall has its own iteration of this staple dish — varying anything from marinating time, type of starch/flour/shrimp paste used, and even the method of frying — I was pleasantly surprised at Guan Kim's iteration. It had a very light saltiness (presumably from the prawn paste) that lingered in my mouth for quite a long time, and was very crispy on the outside.
Each piece was very juicy on the inside. It had a crisp, dry, non-greasy exterior, which pointed each piece in the right way of fried chicken culinary heaven. I recommend trying it with the citrus-y chilli sauce, which packed a heavy punch.
The minced meat tofu ($8), while pretty average for a tze char stall, was flavoured nicely with minced meat that had the taste of fried shallots and onions infused in them. Was the only dish that was relatively not worth it (compared to the other dishes), but by normal tze char standards, it would have been considered reasonable.
Our total bill came up to $29 for 2 people, for portions that could easily feed 3 or even 4 people. This was definitely the prices of the 90s — the cost that an average family then would be willing to pay when eating out.
Guan Kim Restaurant is a startling reminder of not only the good old times we Singaporeans have shared together, but also the very basis of what our culinary culture was founded upon — a mish-mash of ingredients, put together under masterful hands, to serve as an effective, warm, affordable and unpretentiously sincere way to our tummies and hearts.
Much like how Singapore has always been.
Guan Kim Restaurant
47 Tanglin Halt Road
Closest MRT: Commonwealth MRT
Tel: +65 6473 6920