Singapore’s urban jungle is so dense, its buildings so high and its people packed so tightly, that sometimes you miss things just a short walk from you. For a long time I’ve been whining (inwardly) about the lack of rosti in Singapore. It’s shredded potatoes for heaven’s sake. Why do I have to go to Marche and pay enormous amounts for that?
Or at least that’s my excuse for this glaring oversight – not only did I not know about Ivan’s Carbina, mere minutes away from my place; I didn’t even know there was a coffee shop there at all. It was only when I saw a video on Facebook that I knew. Rosti was there all the time; indeed, it’s been there for years.
All young trees look the same; all old trees grow old in their own way. The same holds for housing estates too, the new ones all plagued by the dreary sameness of the mall, of chains upon chains – republics wherein food is had, for example, or boxes wherein toast is contained. Far better are the old neighbourhoods, especially the ones with shop space downstairs where some of my favourite places have sprung, like Tachinomiya in Kovan or Percolate in Bedok.
And Block 151 in Ang Mo Kio has got two such places. Shanghai Renjia I will leave to a later review, mostly because it wasn’t open when I dropped by. Meanwhile Soi 19 is not just open but quiet, almost brooding in the grey light of morning before the lunch crowd descends upon it. All is as it should be – a stack of pig’s trotters neatly arrayed, still soaking in the dark red broth. The options for seasoning your own food Thai-style – pickled chillis, the devil’s own chilli dust, fish sauce – also laid out. Oh, and the lardons. Can’t forget the lardons.
Roti John is one of those strange foods for me, in a category with lor mee, shengjianbao and shakshouka. They are all things I love, but somehow never seek out; I can function for years without particularly craving them, but if I happen to be somewhere and they happen to be available, I know what I’m ordering. And at Al Ameen Eating Corner, where the menu can cause serious injury if dropped on your head, they have roti john.
The reason I was at Al Ameen has nothing to do with the food, even. Occupying a large space in an industrial park in Marsiling, it just happened to have good seats to the New Year fireworks show, especially in the ‘alfresco’ section (the extra tables that extend to the grass patch outside). But they do have roti john. 9 different ways, in fact.
By now it is conventional wisdom that the north of Singapore, that benighted quarter, is a food wasteland. There’s nothing worthwhile here for the foodie – nothing trendy, nothing that rushes up Peak Hipster with all the cool cafes. But there is one saving grace at Sembawang, goes the same conventional wisdom. We may not have much in the way of black sesame waffles or truffle fries, but we have bee hoon in a white gravy, and that is enough. The north has no good food? Go to Sembawang and eat the white bee hoon, comes the rejoinder.
Now, as a northerner, I must politely disagree. That the north is a food wasteland is simply untrue, but not for the reason stated. If you ask me, the white bee hoon is mediocre – it’s not the best Sembawang has to offer. It’s not even the best, in my opinion, that the neighbourhood can muster. No, to get the best, you need to cross the road and go to Chye Lye Curry Fish Head. Well, it’s what I’d do anyway. It’s what I’ve done since childhood and I see no need to change.