Think ‘ulu’ and images of a remote locale flanked by nothing but sprawling nature might come to mind. Jalan Benaan Kapal Food Centre is none of that, yet a hard squint might leave you thinking otherwise. This hidden kopitiam is home to the simply named Kway Chap, a hawker phenomenon that’s been selling its namesake dish for over 20 years.
A 10-minute walk from Stadium MRT station, the food centre was first built for shipyard workers in 1968, remaining a mainstay even as the industry relocated by the late 1980s. I was amazed that this holdover of Singapore’s past had persisted for so long.
Jalan Benaan Kapal Food Centre houses no more than 10 stalls, and contrary to the implications of its drab exterior, everything was spick and span. Evening out this boon was a bothersome heat that pervaded the air.
Initially started out of sheer boredom when they were in their early 50s, husband Chua Cheng Peow, 73 and wife Chan Siak Gwek, 71, have grown their perfunctory venture into a thriving kway chap business with loyal patrons from even Indonesia.
Early birds won’t be first in line to their kway chap, as the couple starts off selling economical bee hoon while the meat is braised for the long day ahead. It’s only at 10am that service really begins.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t there to observe their peak traffic, supposedly in the earlier hours of the day and on Saturdays, when families arrive in droves.
What I tried at Kway Chap
Our meal was a magnanimously portioned 2-person Kway Chap set (S$9++), complete with 2 separate bowls of flat rice sheets. Having to wipe off incessant beads of sweat did not hamper my excitement of messily slurping every mouthful.
As I shifted each bowl, the kway adrift bobbed up and down akin to the gentle sway of a luscious brown ocean.
The kway had become so slick with the soup that we found not grasping them with chopsticks for a steadied shot would do our sanity some good. I was also mindful not to scoop an exceedingly large helping of noodles; these had to be eaten in lockstep with the meat platter.
As anticipated, the sheets were soft and held themselves enough for purposeful bites.
Sips were refreshing and, importantly, hydrating enough that I did not need a drink the entire time. It was light on the flavours in congruence with the kway but the fragrance that followed each sip substantiated the multitude of ingredients in the soup.
The centrepiece of the set and highlight of our visit was the assortment of braised meat. This was where the more ‘gao‘ chap was allowed to reign free, its viscosity requiring no deduction on the flavours.
A deep scent – prominently of soya sauce – followed by its band of spices brought forth a savoury profile that had its terminus on a slightly bittersweet finish. The faintest of piquancy broke through my (weak) spice defences, contributing to a delightful depth.
The eggs were the first we picked off as our priority was on soaking the yolk while the soup retained most of its volume. A proper drench was necessary for allowing them to absorb the thicker chap. While I don’t fancy hard-boiled eggs, the chalkier texture becomes molten as its braised soup seeps further within, completely transforming it.
Neatly placed on top of the meat were slices of fishcake. They weren’t anything of note, but I’ve always loved the subtle sweetness that dot the uniform saltiness. Its slight bounce would later play a huge part in breaking the monotony of textures.
I finally made it to the pork belly, which had fully taken on the deep brown of the chap. Each layer packed ample character of its own, the top rind stretching with the barest of resistance and caving to a satisfying bite; the fat interspersed throughout, dissolving easily with the juices; and the lean meat requiring more chews to bring matters to a close.
Further bolstered by the chap, the savoury tones were elevated and capped off with a mild sugary end.
The large intestines engaged my clasping chopsticks with a rubbery spring, forcing the dark juices out as I amusedly flattened it. I was precocious with the approach, knowing full well that not all kway chap places get these right.
My senses were not staging a defence against spice or dulled by a cold, so I can confidently say these were thoroughly cleansed. Absolutely no hint of an odour or grittiness made it past surveillance. As you can expect, these possessed the chewiest texture with just the right give. The chap took it all up a notch.
Auntie later told me they used to outsource the cleaning but uncle found it so substandard he took it upon himself to perform the arduous task. It’s certainly paid off.
If I had lost my sense of sight and smell right then, the pig skin’s texture mid-bite would have convinced me it was a slice of jelly. The firmer bits were contrasted by slightly fattier areas, made all the more enjoyable with the soup.
Being the most absorbent of the platter, the beancurd already came dripping with chap. Its porous texture made each piece a soupy grenade that detonated with chap at every bite till nothing was left.
I couldn’t resist craning each component of the platter onto my spoon to give a majestic, scrumptious sendoff. No point paying attention to the textures or flavours it was a mishmash of everything great about kway chap.
A mellow acidic tone from the chilli sauce was just the right pairing. I found that the sweet-sour flavour was just a little less than my preference, so I compensated by giving it a full coat.
I was relieved to have made it to Jalan Benaan Kapal Food Centre after Kway Chap’s peak hours, but it appeared that they had run out of other pork cuts. Regardless, the missing pieces did nothing to affect our opinion. For S$9, we had a great fill of their offerings.
It may be a little out of the way for many but kway chap lovers will definitely love the food made by this honest couple. It’s definitely got a homely feel to it. They also offer dim sum and economic bee hoon (S$1++) to round out the meal.
“Business is too good here,” joked Auntie when I asked how things have changed since 2003. “I went from cooking just for 4 in my family to so many people, it’s tiring!”
“We even had 1 loyal customer from Indonesia who flew here on one occasion to find that we were closed!”
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