Man at His Best

How To Win In Life: Up Your Teochew Porridge Side Dish Game

Porridge principles: or the hard-won lessons of Teochew Muay.

BY Ming | Dec 15, 2016 | Food & Drink

Photograph by Ming.


This meal is great. It really hits the spot. I wanted something hot and savoury in the middle of the night, and I got it. There were a few choices, some further than others. The undisputed best option was a fair drive away, but I figured if I was going to head out, I might as well go all the way.

I was lucky tonight too, because, sometimes, when you show up late, you miss all the best stuff. This place does brisk business. So brisk, in fact, that there are times when seats are scarce and snaking queues form. But right now? Right now is perfect; I have learnt through experience to plan when I give this place a shot. Not following the crowd has its benefits.

The staff aren’t in constant motion, no furrowed brows over the dinnertime rush here. They are at ease, chatty and almost pleasant. I can take my time to decide what I’d like for my meal. Umami-laden omelette with preserved turnip, moist steamed pork with salted fish, braised beancurd skin and the dark broths that accompany them. Pickled cabbage stems, fried beansprouts, grilled eggplant, jiggly braised pork belly and whole braised duck. It’s easy to lose focus and bite off more than you can chew, or be paralysed with choice.

I recognise that I can’t have everything I want, and so I deliberate carefully. No one dines here alone at this time of the night, so I make sure I have picked things that my companions enjoy as well. Sharing will make this a happier meal. Judgement is required when placing your order; be not swayed by pretty dishes. This is a humble meal and the tastiest items can be the most homely in appearance. I pick those that I know to be rewarding, and mentally calculate just how much of each item to ask for.

All of the ingredients are good, plain staples that don’t cost a lot. Remember how I said this meal hits the spot? It truly does, and punches far above its weight, holding its own against meals with far heftier price tags. It reminds me that inexpensive doesn’t mean plain or lacklustre.

I look at the dishes as they hit the table. When done right, the correct combination makes for a meal that crosses a range of textures and tastes. Too much of anything will skew the experience and leave you overly sated and wanting in equal amounts. Balance is key: salty, chewy meats must be reined in by refreshing pickles, the noisy shatter of fried baby anchovies mellowed by gentle egg custard.

The porridge arrives last, bowls of simple boiled rice and water, sometimes with sweet potato thrown in. It’s an unassuming, almost too plain foil to the colourful, flavourful dishes, but it has clarity of purpose.

Assuming you screw up and fail at all of the above? The best takeaway to remember: there’s always a next time. Just make sure that you improve with each try.