Last weekend, with wife and daughter, we decided to retrace one of our favourite food in Gau Che Shui (Bullockcartwater in Cantonese). Alas, the original stalls were no longer there. But new generations stalls or restaurants have taken their place, albeit with cleaner facilities and even air-conditioning, but alas, somehow not with the same taste. At least for this old man.
Along Smith Street, at the corner of the shophouse with the lane, there used to be a very busy tim-sum stall with its for-kei (waiters) shouting orders from all over the lane. Menus were long strips of coloured papers with beautifully calligraphed dishes (one has to understand Chinese and how Chinese food is named, not necessarily directly related to the contents of the dish) pasted in a slanted form on the walls at the lane and in the shop.
To compensate the dirtiness of the environment (which was oblivious to us), when we had a place to sit down, the for-kei would come along with a towel over his shoulder and a kettle of boiling water in one hand and a small enamel basin containing chopsticks and tea cups. He would place them on the table and pour the boiling water into the small basin (size of a soup bowl). With the steam coming out of the sprout as the water went into the basin, one could be sure the germs will be dead in no time. Chinese tea was taken for granted. Then, at least at this place, we were not sophisticated enough to have a selection of tea. I remember when I first went to HongKong in 1976, the waiter and I were shocked about the selections of Chinese Tea. The waiter must have thought me a dumb, and I was dumbfounded with such a wide selection of tea! When he first asked me "Oi yum mi ye cha", my answer was "zhong kok cha". I have learnt since then.
Ah and so when we went to this restaurant the last weekend, we were wiser and indeed, they asked what tea we would want. In the old days in Singapore, probably the Poh-Lei and Lok-Poh would be the popular Cantonese tea. These days, Huong-Pin (Xiang Pian) is also popular. We had Poh-Lei. We had quite an assortment of Har-Gau (Prawn Dumplings), Hor Yip Fun (Lotus Leaf Glutinous Rice), Chee Cheong Fun (Rice Rolls) with prawns and Char Siew (grilled pork strips), and Wu Tao Koh (Yam Cake). And of course my favourite Lor Mai Kai (glutinous rice with chicken).
In my childhood days - 1960s - with my friend, we would try to save up to 30 cents before we would then venture into the heart of Chinatown, yes, to this lane to have a plate of Lor Mai Kai. With hot steaming tea and just one Lor Mai Kai, we would savour every grain, and enjoy the din of the for-kei shouting out the orders in codes. I always remember that for "7", they would call "lei-pai", meaning Sunday, but in reality seven. In this way, it was easier for the backend to hear clearly versus the word "chak", the Cantonese for seven.
When it comes to identifying the customer, the for-kei can be very creative and certainly colourful in their descriptions.
In those days, it was business like and very brisk. The moment you leave the table, someone would come up to clean up almost immediately, and someone would take over the place. And the next cycle of business began. I moan when I think of the current hawker centers these days. There was this old lady waitress serving up last week. It was pure down to earth Cantonese warmth as she spoke between Mandarin and Cantonese (because we preferred to speak Cantonese .. imagine ordering Lor Mai Kai in any language other than Cantonese!) advising us of the dishes to pick and serving us. Ah, the granny warmth! Next table had three young children (3 years old) and she went to advise and help to put a sweater for them lest they caught the chill from the drafts of the air-conditioning. Something that we did not encounter in the old days and found it so refreshing that it is there today.
Could anyone recommend the best Lor Mai Kai in Singapore? It would certainly no longer be 30 cents. (^^)