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 “Nǐ chī 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!