Sometimes, you need to just stop thinking and just let your mind wander.
Very rarely, but ever so often, the spotlight of the international media shines upon Singapore. Most of the time, we pay them very little attention, except to marvel the extensive (but inaccurate) coverage we’re getting from the opposite end of the world. When the levels of pollution and visibility rose to record levels last month over Singapore, I remember the city-state being headline news in everywhere from Atlanta to South Africa. Never mind if much of the world was ignorant, but it was certainly amusing to watch allegedly reliable news channels like CNN and Sky News inaccurately portray the location and nationality of “Singapore”. From pinning the pollution of the city as “yet another red flag” on the need for Singapore’s capital, “Beijing” to tackle the growing environmental disasters across China, to the mislabeling of the lower half of Southeast Asia as Singapore…it was cringe-worthy but oh so hilarious.
But it’s only when the international media talks about our food that truly drives our nationalist sentiments and personal interests. No one can explicitly define how food is a unifying trait specific only to Singaporeans, particularly when eating is a primal instinct, it fulfills a bodily desire – if you don’t eat, you die, simple as that, really. Claiming that food is the unifying spirit between all Singaporeans is like saying that food is the unifying spirit of another country… There’s really nothing unique about the concept of a country’s cuisine being a part of its national identity. You can’t have one and not the other. I suppose that the defining factor, as with the rest of Southeast Asia particularly Malaysia, is that Singapore cuisine was, is and will always be influenced by the peoples who’ve stayed or are merely passing through. So, when the March 2013 issue of Time Magazine picked Good Morning Nanyang Cafe as one of the “World’s Best-Kept Secrets”, you’ll know it’s going to spark a national debate.
The cafe was featured as a “favorite getaway and hideaway for mind, body and soul”, and joined other spots in Sydney and Paris, which, to be honest, could be described as “worst” best-kept secrets since those spots seem to be well-known – even I know that Iggy’s bakery and Le Chapeau Melon exist. Specifically, the kaya’s mentioned as being “more textured and less sweet than the norm, with pronounced flavors of egg and pandan”, and its poached “perfectly soft-boiled eggs”. So, of course, I was going to try it, and today, I finally got the chance to.
But before I delve into the food, let’s talk about Ya Kun, a Singapore-based chain of mass market, retro inspired cafes selling kaya toast and eggs, a traditional Singapore breakfast dish. When the the then traditional cafe embarked on its commercial expansion in 2000, thus winning the “kaya toast war” with then frequently pitted rival, Kilinney Kopitiam (which was initially fervent against commercialization, and in general, underestimated the convenience of Ya Kun’s chain stores versus Kilinney’s singularly traditional one or two cafes in inconvenient, far-flung locations), everything changed. Almost overnight, the traditional Singapore breakfast not only had a face and a brand, but it gained a definition. Except for the smallest and most insignificant of players, and Toast Box, a third but much smaller player and overall, is more well-known for its toast innovations, Ya Kun had kickstarted a revolution. Its creamy buttery sweet kaya, sandwiched between an ultra-thin crusted charcoal-fired crispy toast, along with the consistency of stores in strategic locations in many malls and subway stations across the country, collectively set the benchmark of what kaya toast should be. Regardless of whether the transformation was a top-down operation or market-demanded, diners not only responded positively but began rejecting other styles of kaya toast, inspiring many opportunists, such as Wang Cafe (commonly known as Wang Jiao), which capitalized on Ya Kun’s popularity.
Good Morning Nanyang Cafe’s kaya toast works perhaps because it is the anti-thesis to the style made popular by Ya Kun, returning the ball back to a more neutral court. While Kilinney’s white bread toast was often chunky, the kaya combination many a time often too greasy with either too much butter or too little kaya, and therefore a chore to eat and challenging on the stomach, Good Morning Nanyang exercises a little more restraint. They cleverly use ciabatta, which even after a light toast, maintains a very delicate and silky texture. Without the solid crust of Wang or Ya Kun to hold up the generous smather of kaya and sliced butter, the retaining capacity of the light ciabatta needs only a dimple of a spread of kaya and butter. The resolution appeals to a subtle but heightened sense – neither of the elements outshine the other, instead, working in a perfect symbiosis to create something so simple yet so refined.
They accompany the soft-boiled eggs. On its own, it’s not immediately outstanding – you’d definitely feel like you’ve had better elsewhere. Plus, being served in a bowl filled up three-quarters, the effect of knowing that you’ve to sip down 100% more egg yolk than the weekly recommended dose of one is intimidating. But as a compliment to the perfectly placed ciabatta however, it’s fantastic. From here, it’s all French style, with the consistency of poached eggs on the perfect toast.
There’s also the atmosphere, too. When I dined here this afternoon, the mixed platter of refined Chinese Mandarin, Taiwanese Mandarin, and local Mandarin tongues interjected with bits and pieces of English by the side, combined with the red walls and vintage coffee making apparatus on display, it really added to the sense of being in a faux Chinois, old Shanghai Tang-esque Chinatown setting. I might imagine walking out into a scene of 1920s Shanghai, of glitz and the glamour of excessiveness, extravagance and overt sexuality of the rich against the seedy underbelly of the corrupt, the poor and the depraved.