The first thing the curious aunty said as I was about to devour the steamed sea bass, was “is it fresh?”. One usually get these kind of comment from fish experts- they know that only fresh fishes can be steamed. You deep fry or grill them if they have sat longer than comfortable in the fridge. It was my second time, and I had to tell her it was as fresh as the first time. In our hawker centres, largely and wrongly known for offering more unhealthy dishes than not, this was a refreshing touch. Had not my favourite kopi lady and my sometimes food-whisperer told me, I would not have paid much attention to this humble stall.
They offer just three fish dishes- steamed Seabass, Golden Pomfret and Garoupa. It comes with, of course rice, a bowl of smooth chawanmushi (steamed custard egg), two slices of watermelon. On my first attempt, the lady boss barked at the queue “only seabass left!”, just so the last customer could hear her. It was just 12.30pm. I had that and decided to come back the next day- and I was just second in the queue and she barked the same message, at 12.25pm. The second time was just as good- the seabass (and all the fishes for the matter) was personally bought at the wet markets by boss Mr Xiao Ma (who originally hail from Fujian in China), from markets like Whampoa, where he lives, and as far as Marsiling (when there is good supply). The amazing thing was not just the fresh, juicy and perfectly steamed seabass doused with a light soy, stock, shallots and ginger sauce, but the price. I have no idea how he turns a profit from the $5 price tag for the entire set. He steams them as you line up and anticipates the demand so the wait of 5 minutes for your order, is bearable. I noticed he gingerly pokes a thin chopstick through the fish to check for doneness. If it sails through smoothly, it’s done. He practices such diligence because “I used to work for Japanese restaurants and freshness is very important”, and Xiao Ma further reveals how he started at the stall with teppanyaki sets and quickly realised “it drew the crowds but it was slow and hence affected how many I could sell each day”. You can still see the teppanyaki pan in the stall sitting beside the stack of steamers.
It was third time lucky for me (as I came at 11.30am) and his wife Xu Meilian did not bark that dreaded phrase. I tore into his other two fishes. The Golden Pomfret (a whole fish at $5) and it was on point, like how some Teochew or Cantonese restaurants would do it. Again, I am baffled at how he turns a profit in with this whole fish- fresh, juicy with shiny eyes and gleaming. The soy chilli dip was vintage comfort but he also offered an own made crispy mala chili dip. This was arrestingly addictive. The final assault on my senses was a whole fresh Garoupa Fish set at a ridiculous $6. If you know your fish prices, you would be baffled too. It was too good to be true but it was.
Zhi Le Ma
01-87, Golden Mile Hawker Centre
10.30am – 2pm (or till sold out) daily