Thanks to Malaysia, Singaporeans have a place where they can relive the past

tanjong pagar railway

In the final days of Tanjong Pagar Railway

“Bhai makes one of the best teas.” Salem S.O. took a sip of his tea and put his cup back onto the table. The rest of the men around the table nodded in unison and picked up their drinks too. It was a humid Tuesday afternoon and the lunch hour crowd had just left. From 11a.m. on, all of the 50 or so tables at M.Hasan Railway Station Canteen were filled with workers from the nearby port and offices. As the lunch hour ended, the crowd had dispersed, leaving behind their plates of leftover curries and noodle soup and customers like Salem and his uncles.They are the people who neither live nor work nearby, but will travel here as often as once a week, ordering multiple rounds of teas and lingering to admire their surroundings. In the evenings and during weekends, they even come with their families — all three generations in tow — as part of their weekly or monthly gatherings.

All the food in this canteen is Halal: no pork, and all other animals except fish are slaughtered according to Islamic law, which explains why most of the customers are Muslims. But the food is only part of the reason why Salem and the others alike keep coming back here. Except for the one or two outstanding dishes, the Malay and Indian cuisines served here, according to them, are common and ordinary in taste. What keeps them attracted to this canteen is that it looks, smells and sounds like the past. The aged stonewalls and exposed water pipes; the train engines’ deafening boom; and the pungent smell of belacan that wafts freely in the air and then clings to people’s clothes — all of them attract the connoisseurs of the old and the forgotten.

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Poached Chicken

poached chicken, hainanese chicken rice, chicken rice

Delish, even when it’s cold

When I told my godma that I wanted to learn how to make poached chicken, she bought the ingredients right away and showed me that very night. Cooking is that easy to her. No need for planning or practising. My godma, also my mother’s sister, is one of the most casual cook I’ve seen. She stirs and scoops with one hand on her waist and often leaves the stove to mingle with her guests. But somehow the food always turns out perfect.

To make poached chicken, she first filled a pot ¾ full with tap water and heat it up over the stove. She then put some garlic and ginger into a plastic bag and placed it on the table. “Just smash them with a cup. Don’t need special equipment,” she said casually, but I could sense her mockery of the people who purchase fancy equipments for every step of their cooking. She took a mug from the shelf and hammered the plastic bag until the garlic and ginger ripped opened. “That’s all!” she exclaimed.

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Teochew Braised Duck

In occasions like the Chinese New Year and the recent Hungry Ghost Festival, my grandmother would prepare braised duck to offer the ancestors, the deities and the wandering spirits. A few months ago she taught me how to cook this dish.

Ingredients (for one duck)

4 tbsp of white sugar
3 tbsp dark soy sauce
10 cloves of garlic
4 slices of galangal (南姜)
4 Ligusticum Wallichi (川芎)
5 cloves
2 pieces of Angelica Sinensis (当归)
1 cinnamon stick (桂皮)
2 star anise (八角)
1 tbsp five spices powder(五香粉)
1 tbsp salt
3 tbsp light soy sauce
200 ml water


1. Stir fry sugar until it melts.

2. Add all other ingredients except duck. Mix well.

3. Put the duck into the wok. Add more water until the duck is half submerged.

4. Bring the sauce to boil over high heat.

5. Cover the wok and let it simmer for 45 minutes.

6. Turn the duck over and cook for another 45 minutes.

7. Taste the sauce and add light soy sauce or sugar as you like.

8. Poke the duck with a fork to check doneness.

9. Chop it into pieces and serve with sauce.

Sesame Oil Chicken (麻油鸡)

sesame oil chicken, sesame chicken, ma you ji, chinese confinement food, confinement food

Soupy sesame oil chicken makes a one-dish meal if you throw in some mee suah (Chinese wheat noodle)

One of my favourite homecooked food is Ma You Ji or Sesame Oil Chicken. Many Chinese mums would be familiar with this dish as it is one of the must-eats during their confinement period. This dish requires lots of ginger, which has a “heating” effect important to help mommies recover from childbirth. My dad made it soupier than how it traditionally is because we like to drink the gravy and douse it over our rice. It packs the sweetness of the chicken, the smoky flavour of the mushrooms, the fragrance of the sesame oil. Sometimes when we have too much of the gravy, I would add a little bit of water and mee suah (Chinese wheat noodle) to make a bowl of noodle soup.

Every household has their own version of Sesame Oil Chicken. I know of people who use rice wine instead of shaoxing wine. Rice wine has a milder taste than the spicy, salty shaoxing wine, so it’s up to personal preferences. While most people use only basic seasonings, my dad likes to borrow the saltiness from the fermented bean paste and cuts down on the amount of light sauce. He also adds 当归 (dang gui) or angelica roots to give the dish an extra flavour. People who don’t like Chinese herbs may find it bitter, but I kinda like its earthy taste.


8 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 chicken
2 tbsp fermented bean paste
6-8 pieces angelica roots
1 palm-sized old ginger
100 ml sesame oil
500 ml shaoxing wine
½ tbsp dark soy sauce (Optional. For colouring only.)
3 tbsp light soy sauce
300 ml water
Salt to taste


1. Soak mushrooms overnight. Slice the mushrooms and keep the water for later use.

2. Chop chicken into small pieces, about 3 cm X 3 cm.

3. Wash the ginger, leave the skin on and julienne it.

4. Add sesame oil into the wok over medium heat. Add ginger and stir-fry until they turned brown. At least 5 mins.

5. Add mushrooms and stir-fry for another 5 mins.

6. Add fermented bean paste and chicken into the mixture. Stir well.

7. Add dark soy sauce and light soy sauce.

8. Turn up the fire and stir-fry. Once the chicken is cooked, transfer everything into a pot and turn on the fire to high heat.

9. Add the mushroom water, water and dang gui into the pot. *Note: I like my sesame oil chicken a little soupy. You can halve the water if you prefer it dry.

10. Once the liquid boils, turn down the fire to small heat and let it simmer for half an hour, but add shaoxing wine into the simmering sauce 5 minutes before serving.