When you’re ill, chances are you gravitate towards a steaming bowl of Teochew porridge. Yes, the traditional dish can be bland and uninteresting – earning its reputation as food for the sick – but the secret to good Teochew porridge lies in the accompanying dishes. They have to be punchy enough to hold its own despite being dunked in water and rice and Tew Chew Street Tew Chew Porridge has mastered the art of striking this balance.
Tan Huat Seng, 64, and Ng Tjip Moi, 57, have been hawking Teochew porridge at Chinatown Complex for more than 20 years. Tan is a second generation hawker who took over the stall from his father after completing his National Service. It was formerly at Teochew Street, hence the name, before it relocated to its current home.
The husband and wife duo start prepping at 6am to serve the breakfast crowd at around nine – but come around 11am for a full range of what they have to offer. Signature dishes include steamed pork topped with onions and chincalok ($2), chai po omelette ($1.50) and braised pork trotters ($2.50). A Teochew meal is not be complete without steamed fish and Mr Tan sources for what’s fresh and in season from the market. He recommends the yellow croaker ($17), which is prized for its soft and sweet flesh, and serves it with an addictive chilli and garlic sauce as well as a tau cheo dip.
“During my father’s time, we used to serve even more dishes. Crabs and lobsters were so cheap, you could get one the size of your face for about $5! Now, we keep things simple and prepare about 15 dishes a day,” Tan shares. His father started the business before World War II, making Tew Chew Street Tew Chew Porridge a hawker gem with over 60 years of history. But when asked if his son would be taking over the business, Tan wasn’t as sure. “My son is still very young and I don’t want this life for him," he says. "It’s very tough. I’ll continue doing this for now because my children are still in school but once they go to army or get jobs, maybe I’ll finally retire.”
3 Questions with Tan Huat Seng from Tew Chew Street Tew Chew Porridge
- What’s the most difficult dish to prepare?
That’s a hard question to answer because I’m already so used to preparing the food. I guess it has to be the meat because it takes a lot of time. You need to cook it for a long time to make sure it’s soft and tender.
- What’s your favourite dish on the menu?
I personally love meat so I’ll choose either the braised pork belly or pork trotter.
- What’s the greatest challenge you face as a hawker?
At the moment, I find preparing the fish quite challenging. You have to wash the skin, which is often coated in a black layer. Then, you have to scale the fish and you have to make sure the metal pieces from the scrub don’t get caught on the skin – you can’t let people eat metal! It’s very time consuming and hard work.