“Ah hi, go where?” he asks, as he begins to steer us away from the crowded taxi stand at NEX.
“Actually, can you take me somewhere nice to eat?” I ask.
I can see that my question confuses him. Most passengers he ferries across Singapore board his taxi with a destination already in mind. But not me.
He ponders my question as we drive down Serangoon Central, “Somewhere nice to eat ah?”
“Yes Uncle, where is good to eat? What’s your favourite place?”
Suddenly, it clicks. “I know,” he says. “Toa Payoh. Can go Toa Payoh?”
When I tell him that Toa Payoh sounds great, he cracks a smile at me through the rear view mirror and presses down on the accelerator. We make a left at the end of Serangoon Central, up towards Boundary Road and onto Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1.
We’re headed to Toa Payoh.
Koh has his fair share of life advice to give and colourful stories to tell.
Toa Payoh may not be the most renowned for its food but according to Koh, there used to be a great many food stores in the area.
“There was fu jian mian ah, kway chap ah, pau ah, not bad, not very expensive.”
These stores have since moved away or closed down, but there is one store left, one that he’s been frequenting for over ten years—Hong Yun Seafood at Toa Payoh Lorong 1.
“The bai mi fen [white beehoon] is very fantastic! The zhi chao [frying method] got a lot of standard!” The enthusiasm in his voice is almost infectious, and he even throws in a thumbs up for good measure.
“One plate costs about $5, the portion is not too little, not too much. You can try, it’s nice. I never lie to you.”
I don’t doubt his words one bit. It’s not secret that taxi drivers who ply Singapore’s roads for a living are a pretty reliable source when it comes to recommendations for good food. And Koh is no exception, having been a taxi driver since 1978.
“I tell you a secret,” he says, “If you see a hawker centre with a lot of taxis parked there and a lot of drivers eating there, that place is the best.”
As we turn onto Braddell Road, he flashes me another thumbs up.
“Oh no no, I eat at home already. Porridge. My wife cooked for me,” he says.
These days, for health reasons, Koh has been trying to eat out less. For a man in his sixties, he stresses the importance of eating cleaner and lighter foods as well as consuming less meat. In particular, barbequed chicken wings.
“I heard a doctor on the radio talking, did you know that eating one barbequed chicken wing is equivalent to smoking one cigarette stick?”
I did not. And as someone who has never touched a cigarette in her life and is an ardent fan of barbequed chicken wings, this upsets me.
“My sister always used to eat barbequed chicken wings and drink beer. No joke. One day she was walking and suddenly felt some pain in her chest,” he recounts, “Luckily she was near a hospital, the doctor later told her that if she had been further away, then sayonara already.”
Koh’s disapproval doesn’t just stop at chicken wings. Chilli crab is next on his list of foods that should be condemned.
“Ten years ago, I had a neighbour who worked at a nightclub, every night when the customers would order chilli crab and they cannot finish, he will bring back and eat,” he says. “After eating for a few years, his skin became very bad.”
His advice? Layoff the crabs if I still want to be pretty next time.
Like most other taxi drivers that I’ve met, Koh has his fair share of life advice to give and colourful stories to tell. They’re not the most factually accurate but who cares? They’re entertaining.
Unfortunately, the shop seems dark. Koh offers to wait whilst I enquire if Hong Yun is open. The ladies seated outside shake their heads and tell me to come back at 4.
Thankfully, Koh has a backup plan. “Nevermind, I know another good place, chicken rice balls, you like?”
Koh is referring to the Good Year Local Hainanese Chicken Rice Ball shop located just down the road from Hong Yun. Good Year is one of the two remaining chicken rice stores in Singapore still selling rice balls—rice that has been mashed and melded tightly into the shape of a ball.
Far from gimmicky, these rice balls were popular in the past for pragmatic reasons. The densely packed grains of rice ensured that they would keep warm for hours and that they could be eaten without utensils.
Rice balls are thus a true hallmark of tradition and I immediately understand why someone like Koh would appreciate it.
“Whenever we find a place that cooks food similar to what we had last time, we will continue to go back there and eat,” he tells me.
After we ascertain the shop is indeed open, I bid Koh goodbye and pay him his fare. When I ask for a picture, he shies away.
“Don’t want ah, so old, so ugly.”
He eventually relents after a little persuading.
The generation gap between Koh and I might’ve just been a little too wide. While he loved the rice balls, I didn’t. I looked forward to the fragrant aroma and slight oiliness of typical chicken rice but was greeted instead with rice balls that were too dense and dry. Not only did they obscure the flavour of the rice, it reminded me a little too much of a Ketupat.
The chicken was average in taste and texture, nothing to crow about.
The soup however, we could agree on. It was tasty, not too oily and had a depth of flavour beyond what MSG can give. Even better, each bowl of soup came with a cut of chicken feet and a handful of groundnuts in them.
At $4 a plate, it’s hardly expensive but would I go back again? Probably not.
Within 5 minutes, I find myself before a plate of their famous bee hoon, served with pieces of squid, leafy vegetables, shrimp, egg and slices of pork. It costs $4.50.
It’s a dry dish, not the least bit oily, but that’s not a problem. The noodle is soft but still springy, having fully absorbed the flavour of the stock and the fried lard. It clumps together slightly, but this means that I am able to pick up generous portions of it easily with my chopsticks.
It’s simple yet incredibly tasty, and doesn’t look like it’s trying too hard.
But Koh doesn’t need food reviews to know if a place is good or not, he’s got his tastebuds and years of experience traversing Singapore’s streets and hawker centres.
When I ask where to find good fu jian mian, he tells me to go to Eunos, Changi and Hougang. For porridge, Jalan Bukit Merah and for Wanton Mee, Chinatown and Lavender. He’s a walking compendium of food with a keen sense of direction.
I recall Koh telling me that after 40 years of being a taxi driver, he doesn’t know if he can do anything else with his life. I tell him he should try his hand at being a food blogger.