The thing I love most about being in a foreign country is that pretty much every time I set foot out the door I see or discover something totally new to me. Today, it happened at the mall. Yes, the mall.
I went to Vivo City (a ginormous mall that claims to be “Singapore’s largest retail and lifestyle destination”) to run some errands and do some shoe shopping. Upon walking back to the center court of the mall, I noticed an escalator to a third level I didn’t even know was there — a little like Being John Malkovich. I also noticed a huge sign on the third level that said “Food Republic”.
Food Republic? Really, more food? In this city, any sign that says “food” in any way, shape or form (Food Opera, Food Republic, Food Gallery, Food World) leads to a labyrinth of food stalls with so many choices it’ll take you longer to decide what to eat than it will to actually eat it. There’s already a huge “Kopitiam” (food court) in the basement of Vivo City, so this Food Republic was a big surprise to me. I took the escalator up to the third floor.
Just as I suspected — more food. Over a dozen stalls fill the center and perimeter of a large seating area, decorated to look like an old Asian village with faux wood floors, hanging red lanterns and wooden tables with Chinese stools. Wow, pretty darn nice for a food court. It actually made me want to sit down and stay a while, so I evaluated the food choices. All the usual suspects were there — chicken rice, noodles, curry puffs, etc. I saw a gorgeous purplish eggplant dish with carrots and green beans that could have been the subject of a color theory class. Eye-popping, spectacular color amidst a rainbow display of Indonesian food.
And then I came to the THUNDER TEA RICE. Even saying it, my voice drops a little and I imagine a deep, dark rumble in the distance. (Or maybe it’s my stomach growling.) The picture on the signboard looked intriguing so I decided to give it a go, for $6.50 SGD. I asked for brown rice, and then the server asked me a couple questions. I couldn’t understand much, so I think I ended up saying yes to tofu and yes to everything.
I’m glad I did — I love this dish. It’s healthy, with a bunch of textures and flavors. A large bowl contains brown rice in the bottom with sliced long beans (shaped like an X and new to me), cabbage, carrots, peanuts, bits of tofu and ikan bilis (dried anchovies, easily removed if you don’t like them) on top. A smaller bowl contains the magic — a pesto of green tea leaves, mint, basil, coriander and Chinese parsley made into a hot tea that’s poured over the rice. And today’s version included a savory piece of fried tofu — crispy and well seasoned on top, soft in the middle. So, so, so good.
Thunder Tea Rice (also known as Lei Cha Fan) has a long history, and apparently people either love it or hate it. It dates all the way back to the Qin dynasty in China, around 200 AD. People claim Thunder Tea Rice aids digestion, lowers cholesterol, boosts immunity and fights off the flu. Whatever it does or doesn’t do, I’m hooked and I’m hoping I’ll find it at the hawker stands around town because my search for Singapore’s best is officially on.