Rich flavours, rich history

24 Sep 2018

By Rachel Chiu and Edwin Chan

Mr Chiam Puay Kherng, 64, has been running a noodle stall in the National Institute of Education's canteen for the past 19 years.

Students have been able to enjoy a wide variety of food in NTU over the past few years, as eateries in the North Spine Plaza and canteens in the new Halls of Residence have sprung up.

Amid these new developments, however, there are a few stalls on campus that have been in business for over a decade and are still thriving.

Old school flavours

The noodle stall at the National Institute of Education (NIE) canteen had its start in the old NIE Bukit Timah campus, where it opened for business in 1999. When NIE relocated to NTU the next year, the stall followed suit.

Mr Chiam Puay Kherng, 64, and his wife, Mdm Ng Cheng Hua, 56, have been running the stall together for the past 19 years.

”I help her sometimes, but my wife is the one who does most of the cooking. I take care of money matters and buying fresh ingredients,” said Mr Chiam in Mandarin.

Despite an unassuming signboard that reads “Noodle Stall”, the stall is famous among students for its bak chor mee, or minced pork noodles.

The couple prides themselves for their use of quality ingredients, and Mr Chiam said this is a reason why the stall manages to retain many regular customers.

“Whenever there are excess ingredients left over, I always throw them away and get new ones rather than keep them overnight,” he said.

After operating his stall in the NIE canteen for so many years, Mr Chiam said he is reluctant to shift his business anywhere else.

“When you’re in one place for such a long time, you don’t really think of shifting elsewhere, especially if your business is doing well.”

Some of the couple’s loyal customers are former students who travel to NTU just to savour the popular bak chor mee again.

“There was one former student from the old Bukit Timah campus who told me he drove all the way from Ang Mo Kio,” said Mr Chiam, adding that the customer is now in his early forties.

“It’s nice to be remembered even after all these years.”

Mala mania

Owner Ong Yap Kwang, 57 (second from right) and his team (from left) Mr Guo Feng, 38, Mr Zhang Yan Min, 45, and Mr Ma Xian Bao, 46, run Canteen 9's mala stall.

The owner of Canteen 9’s mala hotpot stall has also been in business in NTU for over two decades.

Mr Ong Yap Kwang, 57, first opened a Xi’an handmade noodle stall at Canteen 1 in 1996. After several rounds of relocation, his stall finally settled in Canteen 9 in 2008.

Now, his stall is known for its mala xiang guo, or a spicy and numbing stir-fried dish, after it was included in the menu in 2011.

“There were no other stalls selling mala xiang guo back then so I thought that customers would find our stall more fresh and unique. It also meant that we didn’t have any competition,” he said.

Mr Ong is also the operator of Canteen 9, but he is always stationed at the mala xiang guo stall, where he can be found cooking with his team of Sichuan chefs.

The cuisine’s authenticity is a reason for his stall’s success, he said.

“Our current head chef from Sichuan learnt how to cook mala dishes from a first generation chef in his province. We have tweaked the recipe slightly to suit Singaporeans’ tastes,” said Mr Ong.

For example, traditional mala hotpot has a very strong taste due to the presence of the pyrite herb in its ingredients. Some Singaporeans do not like that, so the stall tries to reduce its use of the herb in its recipes.

Mr Ong plans to open a bigger stall in NTU where he can sell a wider variety of dishes, with a creative spin on local favourites.

“I hope that one day I can use the idea of choosing ingredients for mala hotpot, but expand it to local dishes such as laksa and char kway teow. That way, you can choose all your ingredients for any dish you are craving for,” he said.

“In order to continue staying in NTU, I have to constantly innovate because that keeps things fresh and students will want to come back to my stall,” he added.

Yong Tau Foo 2.0

Ms Yang Shui Fang, 52, is the manager of Pioneer Food Court's yong tau foo stall.

Compared to the other two stalls, the yong tau foo stall at Pioneer Food Court has been in NTU for a much shorter period of time. The stall first opened in Canteen 2 in 2007 and moved to its current location in 2017 after recontracting.

But in the 11 years since it opened, the stall has introduced new items to the menu to retain existing customers and attract new ones.

Its management claims that in 2011 it became the first yong tau foo stall in NTU to offer a stir-fried version of the local dish. Yong tau foo typically consists of ingredients like vegetables, fish balls and tofu, accompanied with soup or gravy.

“A student had fried yong tau foo outside of school and suggested it to us, and we took up her suggestion,” said Ms Yang Shui Fang, 52, the stall’s oldest employee, speaking in Mandarin.

She added that the stall regularly listens to suggestions like these, so that it can improve its menu.

There has been an increase in the stall’s customers since it introduced the option of frying the yong tau foo ingredients, she said.

Its employees’ positive relationships with students also help the stall to thrive, Ms Yang added.

“They remember us because we always welcome them warmly, and that’s why they come back to buy yong tau foo from us.”