Yet another day’s lunch beckons, and today, I looked to the north.
I’m not what you might call a “natural athlete”. I hardly find joy in the pursuit of fitness, but here I am, “active” in sports since my national service days. In fact, I can even pinpoint the genesis of this fitness revolution – at Hendon Camp where we’d go for our mandatory swimming during Basic Military Training, when, after nearly six weeks of lessons, I finally conquered my then-decade old fear of water, and swam half a lap, completely unassisted! I felt invincible, I felt like I could do anything – it felt way more liberating than coming out to my friends. This rebirth inspired my dabble with water sports, from kayaking and dragon boating, to being a serious canoe polo player. I don’t like the training process and how everything smells like team spirit, but I like the result on my body. I might not have striking good looks, but when I train, and see myself becoming fit and toned, I become a bit of a narcissist. And for me, it’s a good thing because when you have that level of confidence and high self-esteem, it transcends your physicality, and I think people really resonate with that. When you feel good, you look good, and people respond in kind.
It’s always easy to dismiss hawker foods, with their high fat content and low nutrient level as “temptation” and “sinful”. Such word associations are not only demeaning and unjust terms to Singapore’s rich hawker heritage, but it applies a certain negativity to it. To human is to err, and by defining it as something “haram” to your lifestyle, the more likely you might give in to that temptation. And let’s face it, few of us have that amount of conviction and dedication to anything or anybody in our lives – we’re just that corruptible. I on the other hand, prefer to view hawker foods as a “treat”, something I’ll reward myself after putting the effort of working out for a week, for example, and after quite a rigorous time in the gym the past consecutive days, I was ready.
The quest that led to today started last evening, when I began food blog hopping. There’s a lot more individuality today, particularly with the discovery of the flexible WordPress platform. Content wise, I’ve the most utmost respect for bloggers who’ve stayed true to themselves, and none for those who’ve caved into commercial pressures (I think American movie podcast website, Spill.Com, whose members reviews films in a raw, humorous manner is a great example of how you can still be commercialized and still retain your integrity). Of course, there are a handful whose sites have no credibility at all. Anyway, I remember reading about a certain post about several Bak Kut Teh stalls up north in the district of Ang Mo Kio, and its convenience struck me as a candidate for lunch. Bak Kut Teh, translated as “meat bone tea”, is a herb-rich pork rib broth which is enjoyed by, and originated from the Hokkien and Teochew communities in Singapore and Malaysia. There’s no tea in the dish though, the name coming from the after-meal aperitif of Chinese oolong tea to counterbalance the high fat content of the meal. However, Eng Kee Bak Kut Teh’s namesake, the stall closest and most convenient, was not its main attraction. Instead, it was their secondary dish that received rave reviews and even media attention, and that for me, was enough reason to go.
I’m not sure how it came about – the only thing that connects these two dishes are its bovine roots – but Braised Pig Trotters has become a secondary staple, and a ubiquitous complement to Bak Kut Teh in Singapore. Who’d have thought that the perfect pairing to a rich pork rib broth would be a richer, fattier pig-trotter in a rich black sauce? Regardless, it’s a dish that’s personal to me – very similar in style to my mother and my maternal side’s version of the Nonya classic, Babi Pongteh, or Peranakan Pork Belly Stew, although my paternal side blamed the dish (rich in sustenance, and favored during pregnancy for easy nourishment) for my “unexplained” tanned skin (which is hypocritical and/or ironic(?) because my long deceased paternal grandfather was dark skinned). Yup, my childhood wasn’t what it should be, but oh well, life’s not perfect.
Once you find Teck Ghee Court Market & Food Centre (Block 341), which is along Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1 and opposite The Aramsa Spa at Bishan Park, locating the stall’s a breeze. The food centre and market’s pretty small, and is generally underutilized, hence you’ll quickly identify Eng Kee as one of the occupied stalls there. There’s an undeniable sense of pride and passion in the team of three who man the stall, each absolute in their duties. I don’t want to romanticize and make it look like it’s more than what it is, but I’ve always been fascinated by craftspeople who’ve dedicated their whole lives to doing something that someone like me and you might feel bored of doing after just a few times. Besides Bak Kut Teh and Braised Pig Trotters, they also have a more traditional “old-school” version, a mash of innards like liver and tripe – it’s an acquired taste, I suppose. With just me, myself and I, I just have the Braised Pig Trotters, along with a plate of Mei Cai, which is a stew of finely sliced dry pickled Chinese mustard, to balance the meatiness of my main course.
It’s a revolting looking dish, but from the very first bite, the Pig Trotters impressed. It was something that could have only come from the culmination of many years of experience, cultivated not only in the kitchen, but in the relationship between chef and butcher. Just by looking at the cut, you can tell it’s not an off-the-shelf product – it’s a choice cut through and through, and nowhere is this more apparent when you dig in. It was impeccably fragrant and perfectly braised. It wasn’t just supremely tender, but when contrasted with the smooth but rich dark soy sauce, it had a very buttery, game flavor that I believed, until today, was lost with pork dishes in Singapore. There was a good mix of meat, fat and skin…it’s hard to believe something so simple yet so complex, could be so hard to find. Indeed, even some of the more well-known Bak Kut Teh restaurants don’t do good pig trotters.