Chow down at camp canteens

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06 Dec 2023 | COMMUNITY

Chow down at camp canteens

Feeling hungry? From sizzling hotplate black pepper chicken chop to sinfully shiok maggi goreng and aroy mak tom yum fried rice, there are no lack of choices in part two of our SAF camp canteen series.

//Story by Teo Jing Ting / Photos by PIONEER photographers

With dishes ranging from hotplate black pepper chicken chop to chai tow kway, you'll never get bored of the food at Tropicana Canteen.

Sizzle up your day

Travelling to Sungei Gedong Camp can be a pain – the super ulu Armour Camp feels like it's as far away from civilisation as Pulau Tekong.  

But what you might not know is that the camp has a hidden food gem: Tropicana Canteen.  

During lunch time, head chef Ling Han Keong was grilling the chicken chops non-stop as orders kept coming in. Almost every SAF personnel we saw was having the hotplate black pepper chicken chop ($6.50) – a testament to the stall's most popular item.

A winning combination: Tender chicken with crispy skin, drizzled with black pepper sauce.

Coming in a close second was the chicken curry with rice ($5.50) – also served on a hotplate.

Both dishes came with a side of rice and sunny side-up, and an extra side of fries for the chicken chop.

Madam Lee Siew Hong pouring a generous amount of their signature black pepper sauce over the chicken chop.

Taste test

Those who know me know that I don't like chicken and that I only eat chicken breast.

But this stall's chicken chop blew me away. The skin of the chicken was crisp but the meat was juicy and tender.

The hotplate sealed the juices of the chicken chop in and seared the meat evenly for some time after it was served, making it perfect for slow eaters.

I found myself reaching for a second bite, and a third. I was a convert.

The homemade black pepper sauce had just the right amount of savoury kick – it was so addictive, I found myself drizzling the sauce over every spoon of chicken, rice, fries and egg.

The chicken curry with rice is the second most popular item sold at the stall.

We also tried their hotplate chicken curry; black and white fried carrot cake; and chicken cutlet wrap.

The portion of the chicken curry was huge, with generous chunks of chicken and potatoes. The curry did not have much spice to it and was a little on the sweet side, which made it easy on the palate.

At $5.50, it is well worth the money.

Make sure to order this plate of chai tow kway – it's as good as the ones sold at popular stalls outside!

For me, the next star dish was the chai tow kway (fried carrot cake).

The white version was loaded with chai pok (sweet radish) and the eggs were crisp with an edge of wok hei (the flavour and taste of food stir-fried in a wok). The black version was savoury, eggy and sweet.

This dish could easily rival those popular ones found outside (think a certain famous one in Bedok).

Priced at $4 for an individual flavour and $5 for a mixed plate, the fried carrot cake is often sold out by 10.30am.

Mr Ling placing a chicken chop on a plate.

Coming back with a bang

Incidentally, the fried carrot cake was part of the revamped menu that Mr Ling introduced after coming back to helm Tropicana Canteen last September.

The 38-year-old began running the stall in 2008. When the pandemic hit, business took a huge dip and he decided to do seafood live selling on Facebook. During that period, his mother, Lee Siew Hong, ran the stall alone.

When he returned last year, he did an overhaul of the menu to revive the business; roped in his wife, Vernice Lim; and took over the main bulk of cooking.

Asked why the hotplate black pepper chicken chop was so popular with his patrons, Mr Ling said: “We use boneless thigh meat as it is softer and tender.”

(From left) Mr Ling, Ms Lim, 33, and Madam Lee, 67, pride themselves in serving good and affordable food for the personnel at Sungei Gedong Camp.

The wife is always right

Another secret to his success is Ms Lim, who is the pickier eater and official food-tester for everything he cooks.

"I like my chicken skin to be crisp so that’s why I approved his chicken chop. I guess majority like it the same way as me,” said Ms Lim with a laugh.

Despite trying it for the first time, PTE Chew really enjoyed his black pepper chicken chop and rated it 8 out of 10.

She's not wrong – Private (PTE) Chew Zhan Eng, who tried the black pepper chicken chop for the first time, loved the crispy chicken skin.

"The skin is crispy, the chicken is tender and it goes very well with the black pepper sauce. In fact, the sauce really elevates the flavour of the chicken!” said the 21-year-old intelligence admin support assistant from Headquarters Armour, who rated the dish 8 out of 10.

Another of the stall's popular items is their homemade pandan waffles – unfortunately, they were unavailable during our visit.

Said to be thicker and more fragrant than the ones sold outside, each waffle is made to be crisp on the outside and soft in the inside. Ms Lim is also very generous with the fillings, which explains why they sell up to 88 waffles a day.

I even overheard an NSF (full-time national serviceman) lamenting to another about how the waffles were not available, and that he usually ordered one every day – guess that's proof enough of how good they are!

Tropicana Canteen

Blk 214, Sungei Gedong Camp

Opening hours: 7am - 3pm (weekdays)

For 2SG Fahmy, this plate of maggi goreng is his weekly indulgence in camp.

Maggi Goreng? Sedap!

When 2nd Sergeant (2SG) Ahmad Fahmy Bin Shamsul Kahar first posted to Maju Camp, one of the first things he was told was to try the maggi goreng sold at the canteen.

"It's very flavourful and sedap (Malay for yummy), and it gives you a taste of home. The ingredients are simple, but shiok,” said the 20-year-old platoon sergeant from 1st Company in 9th Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment.

"Much as I like it, it's not good to eat too much so this is my once-a-week indulgence!”

Simple but delicious: This plate of maggi goreng keeps the personnel at Maju Camp coming back for more.

He's not wrong. During lunchtime, almost everyone was ordering a plate of maggi goreng from the Maju Canteen Malay Stall.

It's so popular, we hear there are days that the wait for a plate of the delicious fried instant noodles can take up to 30 minutes.

Thankfully, mine came within 10 minutes.

A small plate (left) of maggi goreng is priced at $2.40, while the large one costs $3.70.

Taste test

Priced at $2.40 for a small plate and $3.70 for a large portion, my maggi goreng was a lovely mess of eggy-ness peppered with sliced chicken sausages.

The noodles were slightly moist (just the way I like it) and every strand of noodles was evenly seasoned and coated with creamy eggs and the sweet black sauce.

Truly shiok, it had a taste of home – but the kind that even your mother may not be able to replicate!

The star of the nasi lemak was the rice – the fragrance of the coconut milk made it very appetising.

We also tried the nasi lemak – another hot favourite at the stall.

The star of the dish was undoubtedly the rice. It was truly lemak (creamy in Malay) – you could taste the rich fragrance of the coconut milk, and the nasi lemak was as every bit as good as the ones sold outside.

In fact, I could just make a meal out of it alone.

We paired ours with a sunny side-up, chicken cheese sausage and chicken cutlet with a side of homemade sambal. This cost $4.50.

Madam Norlaile can whip up to 80 plates of maggi goreng in a day.

Cooked with passion

The nasi lemak was a recipe passed down by his late mother-in-law who used to run the stall, said Mr Saidi Bin Bernawi.

The 59-year-old now runs the stall with his wife Norlaile Binte Darawi, and the couple has been doing so for the past 27 years.

Madam Norlaile, 50, is the main cook and makes the nasi lemak from scratch. She also prepares the broth for mee soto, which is a favourite among NSmen (operationally ready national servicemen) when they return for In-Camp Training (ICT).

Mr Saidi (right) and Madam Norlaile have been running the Malay stall together for 27 years.

Still, nothing beats the popularity of her maggi goreng. Madam Norlaile can whip up to 80 plates of fried instant noodles a day. On ICT days, the amount triples!

"Sometimes, I get personnel coming up to me asking why their mother cannot cook the same maggi goreng taste as me,” said Mdm Norlaile with a laugh.

"I also don't know what to say. I love to cook and I just cook it my way, with passion.”

Maju Canteen Malay Stall

Blk 33, Maju Camp

Opening hours: 8.15am - 3pm (weekdays)


This is one tom yum fried rice that’s worth climbing up the hill.

Tom Yum fried rice? Nice!

Despite its inconvenient location, the aptly named Hilltop Café has a steady stream of patrons who are unfazed by the climb to get there for a taste of  delicious Thai cuisine.

From tom yum fried rice and green curry to Kung Pao hor fun and beef patty with black pepper sauce, this standalone shop in Nee Soon Camp operates like a tze char stall.

The seafood green curry and the tom yum fried rice were a match made in heaven.

Taste test

The main reason which brought us to Hilltop Café were reviews on Google – no kidding! – which mentioned that the tom yum fried rice ($4.50) was nice.

One bite and I understood the hype. Peppered with prawns, squid and chopped crabsticks, the fried rice had a perfect balance of spiciness and sourness suited to local taste buds.

Every grain was beautifully coated with the tom yum sauce and each mouthful made me crave for more. There was also an undeniable wok hei, which enhanced the aroma of the rice.  

ME2 Chua enjoys the good balance of spiciness and sourness in the tom yum fried rice.

"I like that it has a good balance of flavours and the aunty is very generous with her servings,” said Military Expert (ME) 2 Jash Chua, who had his fried rice with a sunny side-up ($0.60) and chicken cutlet ($1.30).

The 36-year-old drum major from the SAF Central Band also loves the chicken cutlet and eats it almost every day!

"The cutlet is crispy on the outside and tender and juicy in the inside. In fact, the skin tastes better than KFC's chicken!”

Priced at just $5, this creamy and generous bowl of seafood green curry is well-worth your money.

Huge and generous portions

We also had the seafood green curry. Priced at just $5, the bowl was swimming with ingredients. Prawns, squid, chicken slices, mushrooms, toufu, fish slices, fish cake, tomatoes and leafy vegetables – there was a handful of everything.

Aside from the freshness of its ingredients, the green curry had that authentic lemongrass Thai flavour, and was smooth and creamy without being cloying.

We paired it with the tom yum fried rice, and the explosion of flavours – creamy, spicy and sour – was a match made in heaven.

Husband-and-wife duo Mr Goh (left), 68, and Madam Tan have been running Hilltop Café for more than 20 years.

Having run Hilltop Café for more than 20 years, stall owner and main chef Tan Soi Lek is never fazed by any customer request.

The 63-year-old, who runs the stall with her husband Goh Kim Teng, can whip up almost anything customers ask for, as long as she has the right ingredients.

During our time at the canteen, we heard a personnel asking if beef patty was available. He ordered a western meal of grilled beef patty with fried rice and egg with black pepper sauce ($8).

We got curious, went into the kitchen and saw a large, juicy 200g beef patty sitting on the grill. Slightly charred on the edges, the beef was grilled beautifully.

Madam Tan then heated up her homemade black pepper sauce, and gave it a few stirs in the wok before piling heaps of gravy over the meat.

The grilled beef patty with fried rice and egg with black pepper sauce made us wish we had more stomach space.

Off-the-menu specials

She also whips up dishes not on the menu, such as the highly raved dry laksa. Sadly, it wasn't available that day.

Despite the stall being located within the SAF Band premises, its patrons include personnel from all over Nee Soon Camp – whether they come from the firing range or the engineers' side – which speaks volumes of Madam Tan's food and culinary skills.

"The engineers love my Kung Pao hor fun – it's one of my specialties that I make with dry chilli, curry leaves and onions,” said Madam Tan, beaming with pride.

Despite being located up a hill, Hilltop Café has its fair share of patrons who willingly go the distance for Madam Tan's food.

One big family

She knows the taste buds of every patron and even does the omakase (left to the chef) style for some veterans such as SAF Band's senior director of music ME6 Philip Tng.

"He will come and ask me, 'Aunty, what should I eat today?' and I'll tell him to take a seat and cook something that he likes,” said Madam Tan with a laugh.

"I love working here 'cos the personnel are like family to me. I don't even want go on a holiday because if my stall is closed, who will feed them?”

Hilltop Café

SAF Band Building, Nee Soon Camp

Opening hours: 6am – 5pm (weekdays)

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