Afternoons in Singapore’s residential areas are a quiet, stark time, especially in the hawker centres. The tables are empty after the morning rush, save for some stragglers nursing hours-old coffees; the fans and lights are all off, leaving the cavernous space lit with diffused sunlight alone. Most of the stalls are closed; I’m barely in time for what I was looking for.
Look, I’ll admit it. I try to be a nice person, I really do, but there’s no point denying that taking a tire iron to the kneecaps of a restaurant like Saveur Art gave me a certain pleasure. It certainly feels a lot more effectual than just impotently shaking my fist and saying ‘well, that’s the last time I’m coming here!’ But the pleasure of writing about it was oddly exhausting. More to the point, it was also bloody expensive, and so I wanted to review something a little less costly – whereupon the pig trotters of this stall, at Teck Ghee Court Food Centre, jump out at me from the photos of Singapore’s food-hunting crowd.
It’s dark. And not just the inviting, deep brown of many a braised pig trotter in your local kway chap or bak kut teh place – it’s black, almost without any reddish tinge. At first I honestly thought it was an effect of the cameras, until I find the place – Eng Kee is right at the front row of what turns out to be a pretty small food centre – and get to see the product itself.
Pig’s trotter braised until it’s the colour of night seems like some sort of amateur mistake, except Eng Kee has chosen to emphasise it – black bowls for white rice, white plate for the trotters, a stark contrast that would please a Japanese restaurateur. Neither does it smell the same as lighter broths, the persistent notes of caramel and garlic dominating.
I suspect what Eng Kee has achieved is a very skilled piece of timing in just about everything – the braising of the knuckles, yes, but also the making of the braising soup itself. The coffee-dark liquid tastes much more complex than it smells – the staples of Chinese braising, star anise and cinnamon, emerge belatedly. But it’s the smoky caramel aroma that’s key – it feels as if the sugar is doused with water, or taken off the heat, just seconds before it becomes pure, inedible carbon. Or it could just be an enormous amount of dark soy sauce, except dark soy sauce doesn’t taste this rich.
The other joy of this pig trotter is the array of different textures, how each part has responded to the braising liquid. The skin has soaked it up like a sponge, somehow still retaining some spring; thin webs of slippery fat protect some parts of the meat more than others, so the outsides are deeply flavoured and easy to tease apart with chopsticks, which the inside is firmer. Not that they’re undercooked, though – the tendons and cartilage are crunchy and gooey, while even the traces of marrow in the bone are flavourful, tasting of dark caramel and char. There’s enough collagen here to gum up my fingers and mouth, probably also to turn my skin into a youthful trampoline.
I’m halfway through eating when I think to get another drink, but as I walk towards the drinks stall, just a short distance away, someone starts yelling – the aunty at the carrot cake stall. There’s no one else around, so it must be me she’s yelling at – instructing me to keep the food covered, or to finish it, anything to keep the mynahs and crows from coming in. I obey her instructions, of course. Were I a bird, that’d be exactly the moment I’m waiting for – some hapless fool leaving his pig’s trotter unattended for me to get a peck in.
But since I’m a human…
Eng Kee Bak Kut Teh
Blk 341 Ang Mo Kio Ave 1
#01-04 Teck Ghee Court Market and Food Centre