Zi Char

Quan Ji – Amoy Street Hawker centre.

Despite being in Singapore for over 5 years, I had not truly experienced Singapore’s rich food culture proper, until I had tried Zi Char.  This food revelation happened only 2.5 years ago and coincided with me meeting my girlfriend; a bona fide true blue Singaporean foodie.

It is strange for me to reflect on this fact now, that if I had not met her, my food experiences in Singapore would have been and still would be vastly inferior to what they are now.  Up until that point my food journey probably followed every other average Ang Mo’s path: the odd Char Kway teow here, a bit of Beef hor fun there (or Hot been fun as I like to call it, the child in me never ceases to find this hilarious) or if I was feeling adventurous maybe some sambal stingray?  How adventurous I was!  But Zi Char or Tze char or however you spell it was something that remained completely unknown yet almost literally under my nose.

In many ways, it is hard to see the appeal of Zi char.  Why would one want to sit outside in often oppressive heat, in a place which doesn’t even have any pretensions of wanting to be clean and be served food on plastic plates, often by aged heavily made up angry aunties?  What could possibly be the draw for punters to come into these places?   On the face of it, it’s an easy question to answer: the food.

The food and the quality and variety thereof is massively important, and in such a competitive and food savvy nation as Singapore, if it isn’t any good it won’t survive.  People are serious about their food here and whether it’s good or not, word soon spreads.  However, more than that Zi char for me represents something more fundamental, something that is at the heart of the human condition; a sense of belonging.  Belonging to a family, being part of a gathering that can share a simple meal of 4 or 5 dishes, exchange stories, and for the older generation, bemoan the standard of Hawker food these days, how ‘it’s not like it was’ and complain about the lack of good quality fish balls these days (no longer handmade inside the lavatory bowl apparently, terrible shame.)

Being brought into the extended family of my girlfriend here in Singapore and taken to various different Zi char places in Yishun and beyond allowed me to experience food that I never would have thought of sampling, but more than that through the act of sharing a meal together, I was brought into the family; trusted and opened up to.  It was what was lacking in my time in Singapore.

My Zi char experience is only just getting started and I relish the opportunity to be able to get out there and try food from many different establishments.  I would profess to say that I am still quite a novice in the Zi char world but by a long distance my absolute favourite place to eat and this week’s review is Quan Ji in Amoy Hawker centre.

This place was under my nose for so long but I was so intimidated to try the food, mainly due to the bald headed massively muscled head chef who works there (he looks like a meat cleaver wielding extra from a Donny Yen Kung fu movie) that I never plucked up the courage to try the food.  This establishment takes up two stalls on the ground floor of Amoy Hawker centre, which I have to say is one of my favourite hawker centres in all of Singapore.

It is run by at least 3 generations of the same family and several of the men take it in turns to operate each kitchen depending on what night of the week it is.  ‘Front of house’ is run by 3 ladies and one uncle, 2 of the ladies I estimate to be in their late 40’s and then there is the Aunty; the matriarch of the family.  Heavily made up, slightly intimidating and spouting a mixture of Mandarin and Cantonese, she controls all before her.

During the first few visits, my girlfriend and I were met with a certain degree of suspicion and intrigue.  With my girlfriend ordering the food while switching between various different dialects and me smiling like the village idiot I am sure we made quite a sight.   Nevertheless, over time and as we became regulars their approach to us softened considerably; my girlfriend being referred to as ‘mei mei’ by the aunty and me, somewhat inconceivably and also very embarrassingly, referred to as ‘handsome boy.’

For a Zi char place the service is superb, I do think it helps that we are now regulars and well known but even without being Aunty’s favourite Ang Mo, the Front of house team take the orders from the clients in an efficient and pleasant manner and deliver them rhythmically to the chefs stood sweating over the Wok’s.

We arrived around 8pm on a Wednesday and as usual the entire row was full with only a few spare tables free.  Virtually all of the other stall holders have the sense to shut up shop early on an evening for there is very little chance of them being able to compete.

This time it was my turn to order, and through some stumbling Mandarin and heavily enunciated English I conveyed my order to the Aunty.  Not convinced that what I had said had been properly understood, I stood there for a few more moments until she gently ushered me away urging to me to take a seat, before asking me something unintelligible in Mandarin which I correctly guessed to be ‘Where is your girlfriend?” Pointing over to a few tables away, the Aunty immediately began to engage my ‘Mei Mei’ in conversation; it’s this kind of personal touch that is often so lacking in the food culture of Singapore that really makes me happy.

Our food arrived shortly after: 1 Seafood Hor Fun, 1 stir fry Kai lan and a braised tofu with other assorted bits and pieces thrown in.  My call of ordering Har Cheong Gai was vetoed on health grounds, much to my disappointment.  (Side note: if you ever go to this place, the Har Cheong Gai is a must order dish!)  A simple meal but just what we needed.  The Kai lang was full of flavour and crunch and the Braised Tofu (one of the star dishes at this establishment) was excellent.  Beautifully soft round discs of tofu thrown in with Chicken, vegetables, prawns and a wonderful thick gravy, this dish really is a standout for me.  But, the star of the meal has to be the seafood hor fun.

I’ve eaten many hor fun dishes in Singapore and I’m a fan.  A big fan.  From beef to seafood, dry or with gravy I had never tried anything like it until I came to Asia, and yet I thought that they were all pretty much the same, how wrong I was.  The seafood hor fun at Quan Ji is without a doubt the finest I have eaten in Singapore.  The noodles take on a kind of ever so slightly charred smoky characteristic which lifts this humble rice noodle to another level.  I am told this is the Wok Hei effect, that mythical art of imbuing food with the charred, caramelised flavours from the Wok.  Until that first bite at this stall my Zi char, in fact my food experience, had not properly begun in Singapore.  Everything that I thought had been good up until that point is now merely prologue.  I urge you to try it.

Our meal for 2 cost $26, excellent value for money, excellent food and heart-warming and sincere service.

Quan Ji is open Wednesdays to Sundays (closed Mondays and Tuesdays) and can be found on the ground floor at Amoy Hawker centre, stalls 01-56 and 01-57.