FFC: Time Capsule … in Singapore

When I first read Amanda’s TIME CAPSULE challenge, my immediate thought was time capsule boxes. Another interpretation (and more popular one) are places which encapsulate distant eras and past times. That’s excellent! I thought. It gives me an excuse to finish and share a video I’ve been working on for a long long time.

But first a little background. Ask any Singaporean “What’s the national obsession?” and they’ll say “Food!” Some people eat to live. Singaporeans live to eat. Certainly, Singapore doesn’t have a monopoly on that perspective. Afterall, a friendly Chinese greeting  β€œNǐ chΔ« le ma” translates literally to “Have you eaten yet?” But Singapore is a nexus of three great eating cultures: Malay, Indian and Chinese. Add to that it’s British colonial history and its current status as a financial tech hub and you have a cornucopia of cuisines waiting to be dined on.

While there are fancy restaurants all around, I delighted in having dishes prepared and enjoyed by everyday Singaporeans. Hainanese chicken rice, prawn mee noodle soup, roti prata – these were freshly made in food stalls and hawker centers in every residential block. More options were in zi char stalls.

Zi char is a Hokkien term that translates to ‘cook and stir-fry’ and refer to places offering a wide selection of affordable dishes that approximate home-cooked meals. In food courts, zi chars will display pans of prepared food that you can order by plate – 1 meat/2 veg or 2 meats/1 veg or 3 veg – with steamed rice included.

Other places sell by menu in no-frills type dining rooms. These old-style places were once called ‘eating houses.’ Nowadays, in keeping with the times, they are called restaurants. One of the best zi char places in Singapore is Kok Sen Restaurant.

Stepping into Kok Sen is like stepping back in time. This is what I’d imagine an eating house to look like thirty or fifty years ago. With clinically white walls, large round tables and hard plastic stools that discourage lingering, this is a place which focuses entirely on the food. Get a seat. Order quick.. Eat. Enjoy and GO because other people are waiting! It’s hectic and noisy but the food is oh-so-good.

The last time I went to Kok Sen, we arrived early, scored places at a table with six other strangers and furtively watched them eat. We ordered through a combination of pointing at their plates & reading off the menu. I couldn’t read the Chinese menu written on the wall but I’ll always wonder about that crab dish that could have been.

In 2017 Kok Sen was listed in the Michelin Bib Gourmand Awards. According to reports, the line-up to get in grew longer. A recent 2021 notice on their website says that the premises is temporarily closed for renovation. It looks like the eating house is growing up!

15 Comments

  1. Oh my goodness, Sandy! What a tremendous post – I enjoyed it so very much!
    You have described Singaporeans to a T – and you are also absolutely right, we do not have the monopoly on food obsession, although we have it down pat: one of my favourites – discussing what to eat for the next meal while consuming the current one!

    Haven’t been to Kok Sen in ages so it was a treat to watch your video (complete with soundtrack & coffee shop chatter) – my favourite is the yong tau foo in the claypot which you photographed, so now I am very hungry. I wonder if they do takeaway/delivery (dining in only resumes next week, if all remains well).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I so glad you liked it Ju-Lyn. The ambiance of the Singaporean coffee shop is unique. This more than anything, inspired me to record it along with taking photos. When I say I’d been working on this video for a long time, I wasn’t kidding. I recorded it in 2017 πŸ™‚

      Yummy. Yes please, have some Claypot yong tau foo for me!

      Like

    1. Glad to have you here!
      You are one of few who like my posts about food without recipes πŸ™‚ One of the reasons why my food blog failed miserably!

      Like

  2. This sounds wonderful! We did once spend 24 hours in Singapore on a layover en route to Australia but arrived so late we chose to eat at a Chinese restaurant near our hotel rather than explore properly. Ah well, another time maybe – and I’ll come to you for advice on where to eat!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The thing about Singapore is that you’re never very far from somewhere to eat. Even the airport has food courts and hawker fare πŸ™‚ I won’t have advice on where to eat but I certainly can advise on what!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely! Are you a fan of crab dishes Neil? One of Singapore’s iconic dishes is Chilli Crab with is crab chopped up with shell intact, stirfied and smothered in a thick, spicy, sweet and savory sauce. Very messy to eat but very tasty too.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This place is amazing. I am thankful you explained about it as I would never have understood why it was so popular. I am reminded of the adage not to judge a book by its cover! There are many benefits to sharing tables with strangers. Although heads are down and eating is the function, there must be some sharing of snippets of conversations. A great way to experience traditional culture. I remember going to this street but only stopped for a cool drink. My first trip to Singapore, included a meal at Newtons circus way back in 1988. Now that was an experience. Zi char sounds fantastic and I would like to try it one day. As Singapore is a stop over hub for Aussies en route to Europe, and I know the country quite well, it is a possibility that I may yet get to try Zi char and the Kok sen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dining culture in Singapore is very very casual. But sharing a table with strangers doesn’t necessarily mean talking & getting to know them. I remember taking my teenage son to a food court, leaving him at the table to save my seat and then going off to order food. While he was waiting a complete stranger sat down at the table and just started to eat with no ‘Hello’, ‘May I?’ or anything. I came back to find my son looking at the old guy, wondering if he should change tables or call him out!

      Like

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s