Somewhere in the northeastern suburbs of Hougang, in an ordinary coffee shop, you’ll find an elderly couple toiling over giant heated woks side by side for hours on end, churning out plate after plate of fragrant and morish fried kway teow and oyster omelette. After over 30 years in the business, Lim Suan Eng and her husband Ong Lim Chong run a tight ship with ease. During service which officially starts at 11am, although they report to the shop as early as 8am, their tasks are simple: he fries up the signature oyster omelette while she handles the fried kway teow, while also taking the orders.
It’s easy to work through a menu of just two items, and you can order according to how much you want on the plate, as with most orh luak stalls. The elderly couple work like clockwork. Order up and before you can even think about getting that tall glass of teh ping, your messy plate of oyster omelette or fried kway teow is done. A dollop of their home-made chilli on the side and you’re good to go.
If you’re here for something healthy, you are definitely in the wrong place. Liberal in the use of lard, the oyster omelette nails the right balance of crispy and gooey, while the oysters – which they import from Korea because – retain their plumpness and juiciness. Mr Ong also mixes in a tablespoon of hebi (dried shrimps) halfway through the frying process, of which you will experience as you make your way through the generous heap ($3/$5/$6). Suan Eng lets in that different people have different preferences and for their regular customers they fry it according to how they like them. Same goes for the fried kway teow, some customers prefer it less smoky, some prefer it with more lard, whichever way you like it, they can accommodate. That’s bonus points for customer service.
With the endless orders pouring in at the stall, it was a surprise to learn that Suan Eng is a self-taught cook who did not even know, let alone want to be cooking for a living in the first place. “I had no choice, my father-in-law pushed my husband and I to start a stall cooking something, somewhere. Even when we started the stall, I was still learning. Just cook anyhow!,” Suan Eng laughed. The couple started cooking in night markets, following the pasar malam circuit to wherever it went. She recalled, “There was no water, very limited space, and at times bad ventilation and hygiene. Thankfully we had a really good landlord who looked out for us all the time and managed to get us our projects.”
They finally got their big break when they landed a stall in a coffeeshop at another location in Hougang where there remained for a few years. When the stall underwent redevelopment, they made the move to the current spot – where they remained for the past 11 years.
As for passing on their legacy, theirs is a familiar story shared by many local hawkers: they've not found someone to take over the stall. Suan Eng says that years back they had tried to hire someone to help them out in the kitchen and business but that didn’t work out too well. Thankfully, neither party is looking to step away from wok anytime soon. We asked Lim Chong if he worries the recipe would disappear one day, he replies good-naturedly that it wasn’t his to take in the first place and like his wife, has learned everything from nothing.
1. How was it like starting everything from the scratch?
Scary and uncertain. I didn’t know what I was doing in the beginning. I think that was our only biggest challenge as hawkers – we just didn’t know what to do! We were just following different recipes, listening to feedback from our customers, family and friends, constantly improving ourselves. We had to, we had no choice but it did make us stronger, more confident, and always open to feedback. It’s the best way to learn.
2. What do you like most about the job?
I enjoy meeting different people and to see how happy and satisfied our food makes them is also very nice to see. I am grateful that our customers and regulars have stuck with us through the years, even when we were still learning and making so many mistakes.
3. What is your favourite food on the menu?
Fried kway teow! It was the first thing I learned to cook years back when I started and I feel like fried kway teow and me are inseparable now.
Go there now
Somewhere in the northeaster suburbs of Hougang on Avenue 8, there's an elderly couple toiling over giant woks side-by-side for hours on end, churning out plates of fragrant and morish fried kway teow and oyster omelette. Lim Suan Eng and Ong Lim Chong have spent the past 30 years mastering their craft and they work together like a well-oiled machine. The omelette is fried perfectly so it is crispy while still retaining its starchiness. Oysters are also imported from Korea because they are plumper and juicier. Don't forget the homemade chilli on the side.