Monday, 28 May 2012

Eating with an Old Friend

You’ve heard it said a million times…in Singapore things change very fast. And, if anything, this rate of change seems to be accelerating.

For a sentimental foodie hooked on nostalgia -- like me; it gets pretty rough, because everything you savored and remembered and held dear as a child would be gone someplace else, or gone altogether. So when I sniff something I recognize from way back, it’s understandable that my already high blood pressure gets even higher!

Ren Ji Food Store is a place I have been coming back to for more than 40 years. It serves mainly Teochew braised duck and offal. Back in the 70s, they were located at the crossing of Smith Street and Sago Street. Business was brisk then; the owner and her team of at least 10 workers would serve hundreds of customers in a single day. My favourite dish was braised duck heads. My cousins and I would buy ten or more heads for our afternoon snack, and if we couldn’t finish them, we would throw the remainder into plain porridge for extra flavor.

He Wu Mei, the current owner, is in her early 80s, yet runs the stall near single-handedly save for a helper. The crowds have dwindled at her present shop at Chinatown Complex, but she refuses to retire as the business keeps her going in life.

The food still tastes exactly as I remembered: the braised duck succulent and tender, the sauce light. I also remember Ms He’s ‘treasure box’ sitting in front of her stall -- a couple of containers half-filled with the braising sauce. Pick up a pair of chopsticks and dig into the dark, almost black, liquid; you will find ducks’ webs, gizzards, livers, pigs’ intestines, eggs -- a veritable witches’ brew. To me, this stuff alone is worth the trip to the stall.

The plain rice always came with hae bee hiam – a spicy fried powder made of dried shrimps and shallots -- spooned on top. Not many places serves this anymore, let alone free of charge with rice. The chilli sauce is not for the faint hearted; it’s garlicky, sour and hot. But it enhances the braised meat and sauce.

The average cost of a meal is about S$6 a person. For me, it’s worth every cent, because it not only it tastes good but it’s also a trip down memory lane.

Ren Ji Food Store
#02-140, Chinatown Complex
335 Smith Street