A customer-server exchange at any zi char restaurant before the 1980s typically went like this:
Customer: “One kangkong.”
Server: “With minced garlic or fu yu (fermented bean curd)?”
Customer: “Fu yu.”
Server: “How about soup?”
Server: “Fish head, bitter gourd or salted vegetable and tofu? Take fish head. The fish is really fresh today.”
Customer: “Okay, fish head then.”
There was no printed menu. Customers usually had an idea of the types of food—meat, seafood, vegetables, soups or noodles—they wanted, and servers would then suggest the possible flavours and styles of cooking, a conversation that led to a dish.
It was not uncommon for servers to rattle off names of dishes because a zi char restaurant then seldom had more than 20 dishes to offer. It helped that many customers were regulars who could easily order off the top of their head. At some places, cut out, rectangular pieces of vanguard sheets with names of dishes were pasted across the wall as a kind of public menu, but that did not work for every patron. “Many people in those days were illiterate. They couldn’t read. We had to tell them,” said Lam Yau Hoe, whose father founded the zi char restaurant at Toa Payoh, Hong Sheng, in 1968.
This is unlike today when almost all Singaporeans can read—not only in their mother tongue but also in English. But a bigger reason behind the now widespread use of printed menus in no-frills zi char restaurants is the rapid expansion of their repertoire.
From just 20 dishes before 1990, Hong Sheng now offers 87 items to its customers. Same goes for long time zi char spaces such as Keng Eng Kee at Bukit Merah, and Kok Sen in Chinatown, which have both seen their offerings more than doubled between the 1970s to 1990s. While such restaurants may have once started specialising in just one type of Chinese cuisine, by the 1980s, they were expanding their menus in response to a more demanding clientele, explains Keng Eng Kee’s owner Kok Liang Hong. More Singaporeans were eating out, and with that came an expectation of greater choices from a single restaurant. Fuelling this consumption was the growth in women entering into Singapore’s labour force. Eating out became a convenient alternative to cooking at home and something more could afford as household incomes rose.
As zi char restaurants tried to outdo one another, cuisines from different regions were mixed and matched. In the 1990s, Cantonese establishments like Hong Sheng added Hokkien specialities, like ngoh hiang to their repertoire, while its pai kwat wong also began appearing in the menus of other restaurants. Restaurants also cooked up new-fangled creations in order to stand out from the rest. More often than not, popular dishes were soon copied by others and added onto their menus to ensure they could satisfy all kinds of tastes. For instance, the then recent creation har cheong kai made its way into Hong Sheng’s offerings even though its main ingredient, fermented prawn paste, was considered too “pungent” for its customers just a decade ago. Even the Southeast Asian ingredient, sambal, eventually became a staple in Hong Sheng, which by the 1990s had a printed A4-size menu as the number of dishes it offered became too many to be remembered by heart.
Besides competition, the cooks in zi char restaurants were also being replaced by a new generation from neighbouring Malaysia as Singaporeans turned their backs to being food producers, preferring office jobs instead. Many of these cooks were Cantonese from Ipoh who had also worked in cities like Kuala Lumpur and Johor Bahru at the equivalent of zi char, known as tai chow.
Wong Foong is one such cook who arrived in Singapore in 1984. He recalled reproducing his employer’s signatures, but also started introducing dishes he prepared back home. Over the years, he has kept in touch with friends and fellow cooks across the border, whom let him in on new dishes to import to Singapore. Cereal prawns and san lou mi fan are just some of today’s zi char staples that are believed to have come from Malaysia. When I phoned Wong for this interview, he was in Johor catching up with friends chefing there, learning new dishes he could bring in to now his own zi char business, JB Ah Meng, at Geylang.
The printed menu of zi char restaurants is a product of changing times and an answer to changing eating behaviours. Spanning from a single A3 sheet to a A4 file, these menus can accommodate—better than a human memory—the insatiable appetite of consumers. They make any zi char restaurant accessible to everyone, especially first-time customers, whom restaurants are welcoming in bigger proportions than before. Thanks to the constant buzz about the latest and the “tastiest” in traditional and social media, consumers in Singapore are constantly on the move to somewhere new.
A sentimental attachment to the familiar and an empathy for those who toil for our food are hardly the qualities of today’s zi char customers. In place of the absent food memories and relationships developed from these sentiments, are the fuss-free menus more palatable to the consumers of the digital age.
PART II: What’s on a Zi Char Menu?
Restauranteurs play with ink colours, type sizes, and omit the dollar sign from their menus to coax diners to spend more. Zi char restaurants don’t attempt such sophisticated engineering, which is why their menus aren’t typical of a restaurant, and are even unique to this category of eatery. A collection of these menus informs the idiosyncrasies of both the businesses and their customers. The generic food pictures, the correction stickers, and the laminates suggest that zi char are shoestring operations that tend to attract people who are more concern about how their fish is steamed than whether their table is cleaned.
Most zi char menus are categorised by protein type—meats, seafood, and the affordable tofu and eggs. The last category may seem odd to the uninitiated, but in the hands of a skilful zi char chef, eggs or tofu can stand on their own as a dish. They adequately replace the more costly meats and seafood, to make a communal Chinese meal with vegetables and rice.
A zi char dinner may go even cheaper. In the 1960s and 70s, when most Singaporeans ate their meals at home, zi char was a luxury. A plate of rice or noodles—another menu category—stir-fried with meats or seafood and leafy vegetables was the only thing most could afford. Hor fun with beef and kai lan, bee hoon with char siew and cabbage, and fried rice with salted fish and diced carrots, are just some iterations of the one-dish meal that have come to define zi char restaurants. Suitable for one or to share, they are what make an eatery “zi char” instead of a seafood restaurant, which tends to offer similar mains.
Yet the most expensive dish from every category combined can raise the profile of a zi char meal. Like many others in the 80s, Keng Eng Kee, previously at Havelock Road, served modest dinners to families. But come midnight, big spenders like nightclub patrons and bookies made up the majority of its clientele. “The hostess would bring the towkays or Japanese tourists,” says owner Kok Liang Hong. “When there were women around, these men ordered excessively—abalone, shark’s fin, crabs, and prawns.” Many more zi char patrons today can afford these foods, but Kok notes that the 21st century well-to-dos look out for good tastes rather than exclusive ingredients.
Most zi char menus come in laminated sheets of A3 paper. The plastic protection allows the restaurants to wipe off food stains and water without damaging the paper. This is where zi char and regular restaurants are markedly different. The former is fuss-free and customer turnaround is at lighting speed. Often, the next customers are seated before the tables are cleaned. When they have been cleaned, it is usually with a damp cloth in a few zigzag motions, and the tables are still wet when the menus are placed on top for the next customer. Laminates maximise the lifespan of the menus and still allow the businesses to continue their harried service.
Food pictures mean good business, and zi char owners know that, which is why they blow up images of their best dishes. But most would rather use generic photographs (sold to them by signboard makers) than to have pictures of their own labour taken. “We advise our clients to shoot or to use their own signature food images, instead of the usual stock images,” says Justin Lee of Phocept, a company that makes signage for food stalls. “Then again, business owners tend to have their own considerations, usually the cost and logistic issues.”
The option to use stock photographs proves two things. One, zi char restaurants offers similar food. In fact, one can hardly call itself a zi char if it doesn’t offer the usual repertoire, which include, among many others, prawn paste chicken, cereal prawns and pai kut wong. What’s left for a zi char restaurant to pit itself against the others are its cooking skill and the quality of its ingredients. This brings us to the second point about zi char restaurants—they compete by cooking better, rather than cooking different.
Not only do zi char restaurants serve the same food, they also rarely change their repertoire. We see menus covered in white correction papers, and the new food prices scribbled on top. This is especially so among the older establishments. Lai Huat Seafood’s menus are more than 10 years old and each of them has almost a hundred correction stickers, informing the updated prices of “sambal balachen pomfret”, “drunken live prawns” and many more.
That said, some restaurants, especially those that have been taken over by the second generation, are introducing new dishes on a regular basis. Their menu, consequently, come in different formats to accommodate the ever expanding repertoire. Instead of A3 laminated sheets, these restaurants use A4 files with plastic pockets. Many items can be displayed on one A4 sheet, otherwise, a new dish needing publicity may have an entire page to itself. Most importantly, these menus can be produced with home printers, allowing the restaurants to make changes cheaply and instantaneously.
Menus have replaced servers as reliable sources for information about a zi char’s repertoire. Besides the dishes available, the restaurants rely on their menus to communicate other details. We see chilli icons that warn about spiciness, while there are chef hats, and more recently Facebook ‘like’, to guarantee tastiness. In the last 15 years or so, logos of television programmes and magazines emerged, to nudge customers into ordering dishes endorsed by the media.
Greater reliance on menus for communication suggest a few things. Zi char customers are not patronising the restaurants enough to know their servers or their food. Had they been a regular, they would not have to find out, from a menu, what’s good or not. Either they would already know what to order, or the servers would like them enough to suggest. But Singaporeans today have too many dining options, and they also eat out too often to want to dine at the same few places.
A menu also gives a false idea that the dishes and recommendations are set in stone. Anyone who has eavesdropped on a conversation between a regular patron and his server would know that eating zi char is anything but. Pepper crab may be popular, and is stated so in the menu, but prawns could be exceptional that particular day. Ingredients can likewise be negotiated in or out of a dish. These will only be known to diners who engage their servers in a conversation.