It’s barely 11 o’clock in the morning, an hour or so before the lunch crowd descends on Bukit Merah View Food Centre, and already a line of eager customers has started to form outside Chai Chuan Tou Yang Rou Tang. They’re here for one thing: piping hot bowls of aromatic mutton soup by this 30-year-old establishment which was already drawing long queues before it was recognised with Bib Gourmand status in the MICHELIN Guide Singapore 2018.
The line moves quickly, with one of the stall owner’s daughters, Yvonne Tan, jovially taking the most convoluted of orders in Mandarin and relaying them loudly to her mother and sister cooking inside: “Mixed mutton soup with tripe and tendon, hold the coriander, with a large bowl of rice, takeaway please”.
The perpetual line outside Chai Chuan Tou Yang Rou Tang at Bukit Merah View Food Centre (Pic: MICHELIN Guide Digital)
Behind counter, the mother-daughter duo of Koh Nguan Choo and Tan Quee Lin are fishing out slabs of prime rib and glistening tripe from vats of steaming soup and chopping them into smaller pieces. The three women work together like a well-oiled machine, dishing out bowl after bowl of soup and rice.
Chai Chuan Tou’s mutton soup is brewed Teochew-style, lighter than its Hainanese counterpart, herbal and slightly peppery. For $5 to $8, customers pick from a whole range of mutton parts for their soup: prime ribs so tender the meat slides off the bone, springy meatballs, tripe, tendon and even lamb brain. Garnished with a handful of coriander leaves and brimming with meaty umami, the herbal soup is served with rice and a tangy chilli sauce.
A bowl of mixed mutton soup with tripe, ribs and meatballs (Pic: MICHELIN Guide Digital)
“I’ve been selling mutton soup for more than 30 years,” says Koh. “I used to sell it near the former Supreme Court building until I got chased into a hawker centre.” She learnt the trade from another hawker, watching and experimenting till she got the right combination and proportion of herbs and spices used to make the signature herbal soup.
When asked why she thinks her soup is so popular, she shrugs and smiles: “Our soup is not expensive. A lot of people come to eat it. Somehow, it suits their taste. They like it very much and keep coming back for more.”
At 1.20pm, Yvonne Tan announces that they’re out of rice, and by 1.30pm, the last bowl of mutton soup has been ladled out, much to the disappointment of more than one would-be customer. Business hours are short and brisk, but few see the hard work behind perfecting a traditional dish.
Mdm Koh Nguan Choo has been selling mutton soup for more than 30 years (Pic: MICHELIN Guide Digital)
Koh arrives at the stall every morning at the crack of dawn to prepare the fresh mutton from New Zealand. “I get to the stall at 6.30am to start boiling the soup. The vats are huge and the meat takes about two and a half to three hours to become tender.”
Hunched over a large vat of bubbling soup, the elderly hawker cuts a diminutive figure. “I’m getting old and I can’t stand as long as I used to. When I was young, I could work from dawn to dusk, now I can’t anymore.”
She seems pleased that her daughters have taken an interest in the business. “If they want to learn, I will teach them. I wouldn’t be able to do this without them.”
Behind The Bib: Chai Chuan Tou Yang Rou Tang
Rachel Tan is the Associate Digital Editor at the MICHELIN Guide Digital. A former food magazine writer based in Singapore, she has a degree in communications for journalism but is a graduate of the school of hard knocks in the kitchen. She writes to taste life twice.
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