In Singapore, at least in the local food scene, it’s very hard to find something that’s flat out bad.
The only mystery would be wondering why it hasn’t closed down, yet. It’s almost as if every true blue Singaporean’s a food critic – we’ve got more or less the same opinion as to what’s good, and what’s not. We might swear behind our favorites, but we don’t get too involved: we can thoroughly recognize that there are stalls which are, at the very least, in a similar league. Therefore, it’s not a tall order to assume that for every square kilometre within this 700 square kilometre island city-state, there’s definitely some great local food to be had.
Even though I probably know that Yishun probably has some great names to its belt, I just never gave it much thought. I’d visit Yishun at least once a week in my childhood (for that’s where my piano teacher lived), but back then, I was more of a short, scrawny nerd who liked everything from sports, to arts, to academics, and was thus well-liked by girls, jocks and the nerds…except my primary 3 Chinese teacher. And food was quite honestly, the last thing on my mind, because I saw it as being “dirty”.
I grew up then, in a very upper middle, or upper class society. I was educated in, in its time, a pretty good neighborhood school (those days, besides the “branded” ones like Anglo-Chinese, Saint Andrew’s, Catholic High, Maris Stella, et cetera, it didn’t really matter where you studied). And this was where I first really saw my first non-Eurasian, non-Chinese peers, and honestly, it wasn’t a good first impression. Contrasting with the predominantly middle class Chinese cohort, these people were clearly living in abject poverty. Their uniforms were either too big or too small, and looked worn—clearly second-hand—and they seemed to smell really bad, wearing the same set of uniform without washing for months on end. I often wondered then, if it was dirt, or was it their actual skin color, or maybe the skin had absorbed all the dirt to make them permanently dark-skinned. Worse still, they seemed, for the most part, unteachable: failing badly, and hardly ever turned up. When they did, it usually meant something bad was going to happened…either public caning, some other public punishment would ensue. Seeing them fraternize, even amongst themselves in the canteen, was enough to make me feel sick, really. Looking back, it certainly sounds hypocritical, considering I’m a little more tanned than a regular Singapore Chinese, but I never really looked at myself in the way I looked at my Malay and Indian peers. Needless to say, I grew out of my ignorance, and blatant racist attitude, eventually…particularly towards my upper secondary school years.
The refocus on Yishun, comes unintentionally, from Alvin, a friend from my SIM days. When it comes to literature, Alvin isn’t the sharpest pencil in the box, but his Facebook status updates, especially when they’re about his hometown, Yishun, they are surprisingly poetic – gripping, expressive and touching, really. While I knew that I could never really ever relate to Yishun like he did, and still does, I hoped that I could desire, or at the very least, have a sense of what it must’ve been like for him to feel so strongly for his home. I decided to lunch in Yishun. And what better way to get a feeling of “home” by dining at an iconic Yishun institution – Yishun 925 Hainanese Chicken Rice.
These days, I find myself appreciating the estate for the very same reasons why I didn’t quite take to it in the first place – space. Living in much of Singapore can feel very claustrophobic – apartments are getting smaller, getting closer to each other, and it can feel very debilitating, because you feel like you don’t have any privacy. Even in the biggest parks, you’re not too far from cars and buses buzzing by, and buildings towering over in the distance. For now, at least, the open spaces enclosing Yishun Central projects a sense of distance, and unlike similarly huge towns like Woodlands, Jurong West and Tampines, you don’t have to get very far to feel like you’re far from the dense urbanization. Make no mistake, Yishun isn’t some rustic village. On the contrary, it’s well-developed and well equipped suburbia.
Chicken rice in Singapore tends to have two out of a possible three outcomes: it’s either the rice or the chicken that stands out, rarely a mix of both (Tian Tian and Boon Tong Kee would be exceptions rather than the rule). At Yishun 925, it’s the rice that stands out. The rice was deliciously fragrant, aromatic, and had a creamy texture, and outstanding. So, it seemed like a greater disappointment when the chicken, tender and soft, was just flippantly drowned in soy sauce, allowing it to overpower the rice, chili and black sauce. I’d love to have this chicken rice without, or just a sprinkle of the soy sauce –- it might just be a winner.