A customer-server exchange at any zi char restaurant before the 1980s typically went like this:
Customer: “One kangkong.”
Server: “With minced garlic or fu yu (fermented bean curd)?”
Customer: “Fu yu.”
Server: “How about soup?”
Server: “Fish head, bitter gourd or salted vegetable and tofu? Take fish head. The fish is really fresh today.”
Customer: “Okay, fish head then.”
There was no printed menu. Customers usually had an idea of the types of food—meat, seafood, vegetables, soups or noodles—they wanted, and servers would then suggest the possible flavours and styles of cooking, a conversation that led to a dish.
It was not uncommon for servers to rattle off names of dishes because a zi char restaurant then seldom had more than 20 dishes to offer. It helped that many customers were regulars who could easily order off the top of their head. At some places, cut out, rectangular pieces of vanguard sheets with names of dishes were pasted across the wall as a kind of public menu, but that did not work for every patron. “Many people in those days were illiterate. They couldn’t read. We had to tell them,” said Lam Yau Hoe, whose father founded the zi char restaurant at Toa Payoh, Hong Sheng, in 1968.
This is unlike today when almost all Singaporeans can read—not only in their mother tongue but also in English. But a bigger reason behind the now widespread use of printed menus in no-frills zi char restaurants is the rapid expansion of their repertoire.
From just 20 dishes before 1990, Hong Sheng now offers 87 items to its customers. Same goes for long time zi char spaces such as Keng Eng Kee at Bukit Merah, and Kok Sen in Chinatown, which have both seen their offerings more than doubled between the 1970s to 1990s. While such restaurants may have once started specialising in just one type of Chinese cuisine, by the 1980s, they were expanding their menus in response to a more demanding clientele, explains Keng Eng Kee’s owner Kok Liang Hong. More Singaporeans were eating out, and with that came an expectation of greater choices from a single restaurant. Fuelling this consumption was the growth in women entering into Singapore’s labour force. Eating out became a convenient alternative to cooking at home and something more could afford as household incomes rose.
As zi char restaurants tried to outdo one another, cuisines from different regions were mixed and matched. In the 1990s, Cantonese establishments like Hong Sheng added Hokkien specialities, like ngoh hiang to their repertoire, while its pai kwat wong also began appearing in the menus of other restaurants. Restaurants also cooked up new-fangled creations in order to stand out from the rest. More often than not, popular dishes were soon copied by others and added onto their menus to ensure they could satisfy all kinds of tastes. For instance, the then recent creation har cheong kai made its way into Hong Sheng’s offerings even though its main ingredient, fermented prawn paste, was considered too “pungent” for its customers just a decade ago. Even the Southeast Asian ingredient, sambal, eventually became a staple in Hong Sheng, which by the 1990s had a printed A4-size menu as the number of dishes it offered became too many to be remembered by heart.
Besides competition, the cooks in zi char restaurants were also being replaced by a new generation from neighbouring Malaysia as Singaporeans turned their backs to being food producers, preferring office jobs instead. Many of these cooks were Cantonese from Ipoh who had also worked in cities like Kuala Lumpur and Johor Bahru at the equivalent of zi char, known as tai chow.
Wong Foong is one such cook who arrived in Singapore in 1984. He recalled reproducing his employer’s signatures, but also started introducing dishes he prepared back home. Over the years, he has kept in touch with friends and fellow cooks across the border, whom let him in on new dishes to import to Singapore. Cereal prawns and san lou mi fan are just some of today’s zi char staples that are believed to have come from Malaysia. When I phoned Wong for this interview, he was in Johor catching up with friends chefing there, learning new dishes he could bring in to now his own zi char business, JB Ah Meng, at Geylang.
The printed menu of zi char restaurants is a product of changing times and an answer to changing eating behaviours. Spanning from a single A3 sheet to a A4 file, these menus can accommodate—better than a human memory—the insatiable appetite of consumers. They make any zi char restaurant accessible to everyone, especially first-time customers, whom restaurants are welcoming in bigger proportions than before. Thanks to the constant buzz about the latest and the “tastiest” in traditional and social media, consumers in Singapore are constantly on the move to somewhere new.
A sentimental attachment to the familiar and an empathy for those who toil for our food are hardly the qualities of today’s zi char customers. In place of the absent food memories and relationships developed from these sentiments, are the fuss-free menus more palatable to the consumers of the digital age.