Eheu, fugaces labuntur anni…
‘Oh, how the fleeting years pass…’
We all have them, don’t we – the old place, the regular haunt. In the time when my primary school was a short bus ride from home, Marsiling Market was mine – as well as that of crowds and crowds of Causeway-crossers, seeking to refuel after the checkpoint. In the pre-dawn blue, every minute or so, the traffic light on the main road turns and a swarm Honda Super Cubs blare and keen in unison, all en route to their jobs somewhere.
And well, it’s taken some time, but I’m back here regularly again. It’s amazing how much has remained reasonably similar to what I can recall. Sure, pork in the wet market is now kept in chillers instead of hanging from hooks – which I count a positive, what with the odours – but the bewildering array of fish on mounds of crushed ice is still there, meltwater sloshing underfoot as you wander around all sorts of marine life.
It is breakfast that’s the main thing in the hawker centre. Just about everything is present – youtiao in robust coffee, several nasi lemak places, vegetarian bee hoon – and then Chin Heng Noodle House, right inside the premises. Clean and hygienic as it is, the air in there is thick with aromas and cooking fumes. I’m almost afraid to write about how vintage it is, in case someone notices that it needs some Singapore-style progress and turns it into some generic ‘food haven’ with a bloody multi-storey carpark.
Chin Heng’s main thing is noodles. I think they serve laksa too, but I can’t recall – it’s always been about their pork rib noodles for me. Me and a whole lot of others – even on weekdays there are queues before dawn (they open at 3.30am), and on weekends the line retains its length all morning. It’s a good thing that assembly is really the only thing they do to order, or the wait would be measured in hours.
Not that they could have done anything else to order. The broth is ink-black, and the herbal aroma – angelica, among other things – is warmly sweet, tailing off to reveal the utterly tamed meatiness within. The ribs themselves are boneless, using the lower bit where there’s cartilage instead, and cooked until they are barely holding together. Yet the textures are still distinct, from the fingers of cronky cartilage to the slippery layers of fat and tendon.
Chin Heng has been occupying this tiny corner of Singapore’s gastronomia with this dish for half a century and across two generations, and they’ve been at Marsiling for more than three decades. While I wish it was more common, I can only imagine the amount of effort and skill it takes to get the ribs into that perfect state, after the collagen has yielded but before everything falls apart, and to coax the woodiness of Chinese herbs into something soothing and amiable. Imitation seems unlikely to go too well here.
And it’s generous, too, as befits a place whose audience includes ravenous Malaysian workers – even for me, the medium bowl at $4 usually suffices. If anyone says the north is without its edible treasures – here you go.
The other thing that comes to mind, now that we’re talking about broths which use medleys of aromatics for effect, is pho. Mrs Pho, along Beach Road, minces no words on its website, making two big promises – domesticity and authenticity. They are ‘staying true to traditions’, ‘adhering to authenticity’; they are, in a pun which really only works if you don’t know the Vietnamese pronunciation, ‘pho real’. I mean, really? At least Pho King fits the original.
Well, they certainly have got an intimate atmosphere going, by which I mean the guy at the table beside mine is elbowing me (and I him) throughout the meal, we (a much respected mentor and I) are sat at a table wedged beneath the staircase, and the glinty metal table has hardly any space between the cutlery, the pho accoutrements, and the dishes themselves. If this sounds like a moody rant, well, it is. We came to Mrs Pho after a boss ghosted us at a tasting, leaving us to face the innocent (almost gormless, really) looks of the staff for about an hour before giving up and going.
This is the sort of time pho is made for, and generally speaking Mrs Pho delivers. The pho dac biet, a combination of beef balls, raw slices and cooked beef flank, comes with a southern-style broth – less hefty in flavour, with the sweetness of rock sugar prominent – and plenty of other seasonings available to deepen the soup base. A particular pleasure is seeing chili padi when many Singaporean joints offer the long reds with little actual heat in them.
The cooked flank, too, has got enough bite to it, though the meatballs are hard-hearted little things that may have come from a factory. In another bowl is the most beautiful thing, though – an egg twirling in warm, pepper-spiked broth, clouds and tendrils of white veiling the yolk. Punctured so it clouds the soup, it adds a bit of sticky richness.
The cha gio are little fried spring rolls, served with a golden dipping sauce that is surprisingly muted in terms of flavour. It’s a good thing there was lime and hoisin on hand to make an alternative dip. Glistening outside, the spring rolls are also subtle within, with light hints of pepper to lift the seasoned mince. A little twist was the presence of yam, which binds the other ingredients together and smoothens out the whole assembly.
The place, for all its proclamations of Vietnam-ness, doesn’t seem to be playing to the home crowd – there’s plenty of American and indeterminate international accents floating around in the white and concrete space. But bearing that in mind, as well as my own nostalgia-warped yardstick, Mrs Pho delivers most of what I like, albeit in bottles rather than in the soup. And that, in a way, is the genius of pho – if you don’t like it, go ahead and season it. It’s what you’re supposed to do. But Beach Road is no more accessible to me than is Joo Chiat, and if I’m going pho to have pho (see, another one that works), I don’t know if I have reason to come here.
Chin Heng Noodle House
20 Marsiling Lane
Marsiling Lane Market and Cooked Food Centre, #01-26 (map)
Tues – Sun, 3.30am – 1.30pm
Closed on Mondays
349 Beach Road (map)
Daily, 11am – 10pm