My camp's canteen food is better than yoursWe bring you canteen food across four SAF camps and bases that servicemen and women swear by. If they've been eating at the same stall for years, then it's gotta be good, right?
Story by Teo Jing Ting // Photos by PIONEER photographers
It could be how that bowl of warm, tasty noodle soup hits just the right spot after a deployment at sea. Or when you've had a tough morning and devouring that crispy chicken cutlet lifts your bad mood.
We bring you canteen food across four Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) camps and bases that are worth trying.
Sea Mee Again
It's known as the number one noodle stall in Tuas Naval Base (TNB).
Literally translated as "Naval Base Number One Noodle stall", 海军第一面馆 sells a wide variety of noodle dishes ranging from their signature prawn noodle soup and lor mee to laksa and 3 meat noodle – their version of bak chor mee (minced meat noodle).
Each noodle dish is generously topped with ingredients and priced at only $4. For instance, the 3 meat noodle has five meatballs and six slices of lean meat, and is also loaded with minced meat.
Since taking over the stall from his parents two years ago, 37-year-old Stan Seet has tweaked the flavour of the prawn soup by adding more prawn shells and pork rib gravy.
It's proven to be a hit among their customers – many navy personnel were seen returning to the stall just to ask for a second serving of prawn soup.
Just a spoonful and we understood its popularity: The prawn soup had a rich and umami flavour but wasn't overpowering.
This aromatic broth held together the whole dish, which came with two whole deshelled prawns, three fishballs and a handful of fishcake and sliced meat.
We also ordered the 3 meat noodle and laksa. While the laksa was nothing to rave about, the sauces in the 3 meat noodle were flavourful and coated every strand of the egg noodle.
Once we mixed the meats and noodles together in the sauce, we couldn't stop eating. It was akin to the popular bak chor mee stalls you'd find outside, except a lot more affordable.
This was honestly one of the best minced meat noodles we've ever had.
Commitment to improve recipes
Apart from their dishes, customer Military Expert (ME) 3 Wisley Tay said that what made the stall popular was how the stall owners made an effort to remember individual preferences.
Be it adding more chilli or putting less vinegar, they will customise the order to their customers' liking.
"They also made the effort and commitment to improve their recipes over the years, such as their prawn soup, and that's what I like about them," said ME3 Tay.
The 49-year-old naval chef is currently a senior supervisor, ration support section, at TNB's Base Facilities and Service Centre.
"I'm a soup lover and the prawn noodle soup is really delicious. My other favourite dish is their lor mee; it's as good as the famous one at Kallang Airport."
When even a naval chef sings praises of the food, you know that this stall is a must-try.
Blk 322, Tuas Naval Base
Opening hours: 6am – 2.30pm (weekdays)
Taste of home
When it comes to a taste of home away from home, nothing beats the cuisine at a standalone stall in Khatib Camp's Blk 6 canteen.
Run by long-time partners Madam Gee Kin Lian, 66, and Mr Yeo Hock Meng, 67, the stall's best-selling dish is their chicken cutlet with curry rice and wonton mee.
Apart from those two dishes, they also sell a variety of homely meals such as instant noodle or ee mian minced meat soup and even chicken rice (a Thursday specialty).
Unfortunately, the stall had run out of char siew when we visited, so Madam Gee recommended us the dumpling noodles ($3.50) instead. I also added braised sliced mushrooms for an additional $0.60.
My first bite of the egg noodles, and I was blown away. It had that old-school, traditional taste which is seldom found in wonton noodles nowadays. The braised mushrooms also had a nice herbal flavour which elevated the taste of the soy sauce noodles.
My only regret was that I could not try their signature wonton and char siew 'cos the dumplings were pretty average.
We also ordered their chicken cutlet curry rice ($3.20), which came with a sunny-side up. While it definitely wasn't the best chicken cutlet I've tasted, it had a distinct homely and comforting taste – the kind that you'll find in your mum's cooking.
Making camp life more enjoyable
During lunch time, there was a steady stream of SAF personnel queueing at the stall.
Among them was Corporal First Class (CFC) (NS) Dhruv Shetty, who always orders the same special meal comprising chicken cutlet, rice and four hard-boiled eggs ($4.90). His order also comes with Madam Gee's special pepper, which is generously sprinkled on top of the eggs.
"I love how the chicken cutlet is always consistent and it has a nice garlicky taste. After trying it once, I was hooked," said CFC (NS) Dhruv, a chief clerk in Headquarters Singapore Artillery Manpower Branch. The 20-year-old has since ORD-ed on 11 Aug.
During his National Service days, CFC (NS) Dhruv patronised the stall so often, Madam Gee always kept a portion of hard-boiled eggs for him. She also gave him a nickname – "Pepper Prince", due to his love for pepper.
"I noticed that he loves pepper, so I bought a special 100% pepper bottle just for him – so that he can enjoy it with his eggs," said Madam Gee, who has been working at the stall for 12 years.
"The boys and girls have also become my friends; I know their orders and I treat them like my children. I put my heart and soul into my cooking and want them to enjoy their food so that they can concentrate on their work."
This is also the reason CFC (NS) Dhruv enjoys patronising her stall.
"Her service and cooking makes you feel more at home and that helps to make camp life more enjoyable."
Blk 6, Khatib Camp
Opening hours: 7.30am – 4.30pm (weekdays)
For the best ikan bilis
Her stall is so famous, even military personnel from other camps have heard of it.
It might have something to do with her ikan bilis kachang (Malay for anchovies and peanuts) which are fried with her homemade sweet chilli sauce.
A hot favourite among the senior officers in Kranji Camp III, it is no secret that they often make it a point to buy a tub of ikan bilis kachang from her, to bring on overseas exercises for that "taste of home".
Ms Nur Hazah, 36, has been running the nasi padang stall in Kranji Camp III's Headquarters Combat Service and Support Command (HQ CSSCOM) canteen since taking it over from her aunt in 2017. Her aunt, Madam Zainab, 61, has been helming the stall since 2005.
Today, it has become a family business. Both ladies run it together with Ms Hazah's husband, Mr Md Hafiz, 39.
We tried a few of Ms Hazah's signature dishes: the beef rendang, sayur lodeh (Malay for vegetables in coconut milk), sambal sausage, ayam masak merah (Malay for chicken in spicy tomato sauce) and, of course, the ikan bilis kachang and Bombay fish.
I went for the crispy ikan bilis kachang immediately and was blown away by how good it was. There was an explosion of flavours – sweet, savoury and peppered with just the right amount of spice that makes you crave for more.
The ayam masak merah was a close second. It had a very savoury and addictive assam flavour that's not normally found in your usual chicken curry.
The two dishes were so good, I could have happily had my entire meal of just ikan bilis kachang, ayam masak merah gravy and rice.
"This ayam masak merah is a recipe from my late grandmother. We toast and grind the nutmeg, and mix it with our homemade spices to get the flavour right before cooking the chicken in it," explained Ms Hazah.
As for the beef rendang, it was tender and well-marinated with spices, while the sayur lodeh had a comforting and homely taste.
Apart from nasi padang, Ms Hazah sells a spread of breakfast fare such as $3 nasi lemak, mee soto, mee rebus and mee siam. She arrives at the camp by 4am in order to prep and cook so that everything is ready by 6.30am for the breakfast crowd.
A big family
3rd Sergeant (3SG) Muhd Nur Arfan is no stranger to Ms Hazah's cuisine. The 22-year-old full-time national serviceman (NSF) loves the mee rebus and buys nasi padang from her stall at least once a week.
His favourite dishes include the beef rendang, sayur lodeh and tahu goreng (Malay for fried beancurd).
"I love how her mee rebus gravy is thick and savoury and the beef rendang is tender. Her cooking is delicious yet healthy as she uses less salt and sugar; it is also not oily at all," said 3SG Arfan, a guard commander from 9th Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment.
"She's very jovial and always greets us with a smile. She also likes to make small talk with us!"
To Ms Hazah, the personnel at Kranji Camp III have become part of their family.
"The boys make us want to do better. I enjoy talking to them and seeing their faces; sometimes they also give us feedback on our food, so we'll tweak it accordingly to their preferences," said Ms Hazah with a smile.
"We are like a family here."
Makanan Muslim Istimewa
Blk 826, HQ CSSCOM canteen, Kranji Camp III
Opening hours: 6.30am – 2.30pm (weekdays)
Cooked with love
For the past year, ME1 Ong Chong Hwee has been getting the same breakfast from a stall in Tengah Air Base (TAB) almost every day.
The 22-year-old air force engineer from the Republic of Singapore Air Force's 805 Squadron orders economical rice – comprising the stall's signature chicken cutlet and two types of vegetables – for his breakfast.
"I love their chicken cutlet 'cos it's flavourful and crispy. Eating it makes my day," said ME1 Ong with a laugh.
Thanks to ME1 Ong's recommendation, we ordered the chicken cutlet as well as the sweet and sour pork.
The sweet and sour pork had a savoury and homely taste – the kind that you'll find in your mother's cooking. The lean meat and generous portion made for a comforting meal.
I must admit, I'm not a big fan of chicken. But this chicken cutlet won me over. The batter was crisp and flavourful, and the meat tender and juicy. I couldn't stop at just one piece – it was that good.
Happy chef, happy customers
Stall owner Madam Lim Bee Hong revealed that she fries about 80 chicken cutlets a day and they are sold almost as fast as she makes them.
The 53-year-old starts her day in the wee hours of the morning, reaching TAB at 4am. She then prepares and cooks the dishes till 7am to cater to the breakfast crowd.
She whips up about 30 dishes a day, with the most popular ones being the chicken cutlet, sweet and sour pork and curry vegetables. Despite the hard work, she feels happy and seeing her customers returning for her food gives her satisfaction.
"I love to cook and I cook my dishes with love. When I see people happily eating my food, I feel happy," said Madam Lim, who has been running the stall for nine years.