We asked four taxi drivers to bring us to their typical lunch places, and 3.5 did.
Everyone knows that taxi drivers are the best hawker food critics in Singapore. That’s because to be a taxi driver, you not only have to know the roads well, you have to be a Singaporean citizen (pink IC) and live in Singapore for some time (30 years old at least), unlike other countries where (sometimes illegal) immigrants are drivers.
Besides paying tribute to our Singapore taxi drivers, another purpose of this entry is to confirm or debunk the myth that taxi-drivers eat unhealthily, like American cops eat donuts. The sedentary nature of driving can lead to health problems, and food can aggravate or alleviate the problems. Do they eat healthily or not?
Taxi Driver #1: Wong*
Pick-up location: Punggol Field (12.47pm)
Drop-off location: Whampoo Makan Place (1.04pm)
Taxi fare: $13.30
Snowy-haired, crew-cut, tall Wong in his 50s has only been driving for 2.5 years. Retired from a construction job, he remains quite fit. When I ask him to drive me to his usual lunch place, he says, “But I eat at home!”
He takes it easy, he says. After all, he is retired. He starts at 7am, goes home for lunch and a short rest, and ends at 4pm. He works the day shift because he doesn’t want to deal with the drama of drunkards, vomit and underworld. But, in the day, he complains, there is more traffic and the strong sun forces him to wear long sleeves to protect his arms. (Anton Casey aka Anson Stasey, take note.)
“What would you eat,” I persist, “if you are not eating at home?” And he lets me pick: Ang Mo Kio or Whampoa. I choose the less-familiar latter. He cautions: there are two hawker centers in Whampoa, one for breakfast crowd and the other for lunch and dinner.
He recommends 梁照记 Liang Zhao Ji Braised Duck Rice (Blk 90 Whampoa Drive #01-07; T: 9450 0893; 10.30am-6pm, closed Tue) and 豪华罗杂 Balestier Road Hoover Rojak, which are beside each other.
After the queue, the duck rice is only OK. Choose from $3-$5 and, if you want egg or braised tofu or innards, it is additional $1-$2 for each item. The duck is tender but lacks herbal aroma. The sauce is heavy, and salty, more suited for porridge. The rice, plump and fluffy.
The rojak is much better. Wong says that President Nathan has invited the rojak hawkers to Istana to cook for esteemed guests. On the stall front, there are accolades, awards, and photos with Chow Yun Fatt. Choose between $4 (without century egg) and $5. Wong claims the secret ingredient is seaweed. I don’t find any but the great balance in the sauce, not overly sweet, binds the different ingredients perfectly. If it’s good enough for Chow and Wong, it’s good enough for me.
Taxi Driver #2: Chua*
Company: Trans Cab
Pick-up location: Novena Velocity taxi stand (11.53am)
Drop-off location: Jalan Berseh (12.03pm)
Taxi fare: $5.64
Usually I would round up and ask drivers to keep the change, but before I could say anything, Chua has already returned me $4.50, giving me a discount of 10 cents.
Chua’s kindness and generosity are shown in his visage: a broad, sunburnt face with jet black hair and blue eyes from age. Except for his blue eyes and skin that slacks with age, the 55 year-old looks healthy, young, and jovial. The Chinese would describe him as having a Buddha face.
He isn’t as inquisitive as Wong, Taxi Driver #1. We say, “Fetch us to where you had lunch today.” He complies without questions.
Perhaps his stoicism comes from his years of experience of brewing kopi at a kopitiam in Yishun. He has seen many shady characters (not that we are shady!). But now, like Wong, he chooses to avoid nightlife drama, and drives in the day. When I ask if he has any exciting taxi stories, there is none for the 5 years he has been driving.
When he finishes his story on Yishun, he politely asks me, “Which kampong are you from?”
“Ang Mo Kio,” I reply, but he is disappointed. Ang Mo Kio is never a kampong.
He remains stoic even when we discover that he likes spicy food and Huccalily teases, “Uncle, I heard men, who like spicy food, like spicy women. Is that true?” He is not amused by our frivolity.
Besides his kindness and stoicism, he is also punctilious. “Just now,” Huccalily says after we drop off, “I very stressed leh. He kept correcting me that there was no ‘Yishun’ in the past; its proper name was ‘Nee Soon.'”
“Aiya, don’t worry lah. He likes us, come on, he gave us a 10 cents discount. He’s the quiet, shy sort who can’t socialize with strangers. But yeah, he corrected me too. We didn’t drop off at Little India; he corrected me it is Jalan Berseh. Do you think he corrected the owners of Sungei Road Laksa 结霜桥叻沙 and tell them they should be named Jalan Berseh Laksa?”
When I ask Chua what is special about Sungei Road Laksa 结霜桥叻沙 (27 Jalan Berseh, Top 33 Kopitiam 顶好咖啡店 #01-100, Singapore 200027; closed on 1st and 3rd Wed; 9am-5.30pm), he says, “You eat and you’ll know.” Then, as an afterthought, he adds, “The hums are very fresh.” He says he has long heard of the famed laksa shop but he doesn’t know where it is until he starts taxiing.
Sungei Road Laksa is so famous that it has its wikipedia info. (The Wiki page also has historical background of Sungei Road. Worth a read.) The laksa ($2) comes in a rather small bowl–order 2 bowls if you’re an adult male–and a spoon. The thick bee hoon is cut, so there is no need for chopsticks. It is topped with cockles, homemade fish cakes, and bean sprouts. The laksa is kept warm by an open charcoal fire and the aroma of burning charcoal fills the kopitiam. A queue forms 5 minutes after we order. Heng.
I have eaten here before but cannot remember if I have liked it. Trying it again, Huccalily and I cannot appreciate it: the laksa is watery, and mild; we prefer a viscous and spicy laksa. However, we can taste its old-school-ness, which older people may value.
It gradually dawns on me that Chua’s character is a bowl of Sungei Road Laksa, simple, warm, shy, and full of nostalgia. We are what we eat.
Taxi Driver #3: Leong
Pick-up location: Republic Plaza taxi stand (11.25am)
Drop-off location: Zion Road Market (11.35am)
Taxi fare: $6.05
Leong, talking on his phone, starts off without knowing our destination. He hushes us when we speak, gesticulating to his earpiece. 50 metres later, he hangs up and asks where we want to go.
“Drive us to where you had lunch,” we say.
“But I haven’t had lunch yet. I usually eat at 2 or 3pm. I ate at 10 plus.”
“What do you usually have?”
“We taxi drivers eat anywhere we are.”
“OK, what do you feel like eating now?”
“I can eat anything. NO, what do you want to eat?” Leong counters.
“We want to eat what you eat. What did you have at 10am?”
“Lontong at Clementi.”
“Sure, we will eat there.”
“No, no. It’s not nice. I just anyhow eat. The entire coffeeshop is closed and that’s the only shop left.” We suspect he doesn’t want to leave CBD area for easy pick-ups.
Leong, in his early 60s, who has been driving for 8 years, is a stubborn one; he refuses to drive us to Clementi. Finally, after tedious coaxing like a parent getting a difficult child to eat his vegetables, he relents and suggests another Malay food, nasi padang at Zion Road. Leong has a penchant for Malay food.
“Isn’t the famous Nasi Padang River Valley closed for good?” I ask.
If it is, he says, eat the fried kway teow at Zion Road Market.
When he drops us off, both are closed.
I am angry at Leong. Partly because he is stubborn and refuses to drive us to Clementi. Partly because he abandons us, hungry, like Oliver Twist. And partly because he is dismissive of our project; he treats us like tourists, bringing us to a popular tourist haunt. I know this because, on the way to Zion Road, he accidently lets slip that he usually goes to Beo Crescent or Jalan Bukit Merah for food. Zion Road is not where taxi drivers eat–no easy parking. He does not want to leave the CBD. I am angry because he has squandered my time, money, effort, and goodwill.
Taxi Driver #4: Lee
Pick-up location: Zion Road Market (11.38am)
Drop-off location: Blk 168 Toa Payoh Lor 1 (11.51am)
Taxi fare: $7.60
I try not to bring my emotional baggage for Leong into the next relationship as I hop onto another cab. Both Leong and 68 year-old Lee prefer to eat at a kopitiam with a huge carpark and no electronic gantry, so they can watch out for pontianaks. I guess most taxi drivers think that way.
Driving for 32 years, Lee, with 3 grown children, dreams of China. One more year, he says, when he retires next year, when his taxi COE is up. He hears stories from his wife and mother who have been to China four times. He is envious.
“What is your favorite food?” I ask him.
“I’m sian of kopitiam and hawker food. They sell the same things,” he replies.
“Then what is special about the chicken rice you’re bringing us to?”
“I ate it for lunch. In fact, I eat this chicken rice 2 to 3 times a week. It’s cheap, $2.50 for a plate, and it has some good soups. Many people eat here.”
He drives us to a huge parking lot (easy to find parking), no electronic gantry (free parking) and full of parked taxis, beside a kopitiam.
We ask the owners why their chicken rice stall (Blk 168, Toa Payoh Lor 1, Kim Seng Eating House) has no name, they laugh good-naturedly and say it has been like that since it opened. I hereby name it “Super Duper Awesome Chicken Rice Stall 超级无敌鸡饭.”
Lee’s recommendation is fantastic, the best of four recommendations. Huccalily comments that the food is old-school and it reminds her of her childhood, she cannot be objective enough to judge. Everything is delicious and perfect to us: silky Hainanese chicken; extremely crackling pork belly (among the best in Singapore); tasty roasted chicken; old-school char siew; comforting watercress soup sweetened by chicken feet; a spicy-salty garlic chili sauce with a punch; and fragrant and soft rice. All for only $13.50 for two of us. When we finish, we are extremely, superlatively, very, superbly satisfied. It feels like world peace.
The hawkers are nice, smiling all the time. I overhear a granny say she may not have enough money, and the hawkers reply, “Don’t worry about it. Pay us tomorrow when you have money.”
We are grateful to Lee for this wonderful hidden find, wonderful because it is super delicious, and wonderful because of the owners’ kindness. Whoever you are, thank you, I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.
* “Wong,” “Chua,” “Leong,” and “Lee” are not in any part of their names.
Written by A. Nathanael Ho.
This article is inspired by Gwynedd Stuart’s “Eating Like a Cab Driver.”