“Nice car! Small, just like you,” were the first words from my new Makan Kaki, private hire driver Vincent Lee as he climbed into my car. “Don’t worry, my appetite is very big,” I quipped. I was driving us to try a dish I had seen in pictures he sent me, but that I hadn’t tasted before: Green Chilli Chicken Rice at Sims Vista Food Centre.
“You won’t regret it,” was Vincent’s promise, as he explained his personal rule for food recommendations. “It must be nice, only then I will take a photo and share.” And share he does, frequently, in various group chats on his phone.
The avid home cook and foodie became a private hire driver when he turned 60 last March, enjoying it as “something to do” in semi-retirement. Vincent’s conversations with passengers usually centre around his favourite subject. “When I pick them up or go to a new place, I always ask ‘where’s the good food here?’,” he said.
He also loves driving tourists because it’s an opportunity to steer them away from the usual cliche spots. “The first thing I’ll tell them is my favorite food places. I always say go to East Coast Lagoon,” he said.
Vincent has quite the adventurous palate when playing tourist himself. The furthest he has driven for food was from Singapore to Kulai in Johor, Malaysia, to try claypot-braised crocodile paw with his golfing buddies.
Discovering Vincent is a father of six, I joked that with such a full house, driving might be his means of escape. “Oh, I’m always driving to buy food for them,” he laughed, adding: “I have only one wife! People always ask me ‘how many wives?’ when I say I have six children. Five girls, the last one is a boy.” His eldest is 34 and the youngest two (twins), are 24.
“When I started, nobody knew. They would ask me, ‘Apa? Apa?’ (‘what is this’ in Malay),” Uncle Jab recounted. Now, the stall sees long queues forming each day, which was what first attracted Vincent to the stall – he joined the line to see what the fuss was about. Since then, he returns at least twice a month for his fix because “the green chili is so beautiful and fragrant”.
Each signature $6 set consists of rice, a whole, bone-in chicken leg slathered in green chilli sambal, fish keropok, two carved cucumber slices, a side dollop of red chilli sambal and soup.
Uncle Jab’s daughter Suriane Mustajab, 44, has mostly taken over the running of the stall now and she told me their two types of sambal make the dish unique. It may be called green chilli chicken rice, but “the red one is extra, to complement the green one and end it off with a fiery kick”.
She was spot-on. The stall’s namesake sambal was a chunky, glistening smash of green chillies cooked down with lots of onion, sweetness balancing the fresh tang of heat. Dotted with seeds, mildly spicy and well-seasoned, it was the brighter, lighter cousin of the red chilli.
Vegetarian kway chap that tastes like the real thing? We tried it at this pay-it-forward stall in Ang Mo Kio
Dolloped on the side, dark and rich with umami, Vincent’s inner cook detected dried shrimp lurking in its tongue-igniting depths. He also mentioned: “They charge you 50 cents for extra, so you have to ration!”
Thankfully, the portions were generous enough and both types of chilli paired well with the crunchy fish keropok and chicken leg. According to Uncle Jab, the chicken is boiled, marinated then fried for about three minutes, but the full recipe is known only to his immediate family. “Only for my daughters and my wife,” he insisted.
Attempting to guess, Vincent and I tasted lemongrass, garlic and ginger in the chicken’s down-to-the-bone flavour. Its deep orange hue probably came from turmeric, gently spicing the succulent meat and crispy, beautifully browned skin.